The Movies That Get Fatherhood All Wrong — & The Ones That Get It Right

Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
À la Tolstoy, good fathers are good in similar ways. But every bad dad is bad in his own unique way.
Portrayals of dads in film are a study in the changing cultural expectations of men, and ideas of what masculinity should look like in a heteronormative relationship. Men are often presented as bumbling babysitters instead of caretakers — that onerous task nearly always falls on the mother.
The "bad" movie father is usually presented in one of three ways: violent and abusive, indifferent to the point of neglectful, or the detached workaholic in need of an enlightening journey. If you think back, the fathers in some of our favorite childhood movies like Elf, Star Wars, and Matilda all fit the three criteria one way or another.
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The "good" fathers are also a bit caricatured, mostly in the way each expresses love. There's the overprotective and annoying dad, the action movie dad keeping his child safe, and the dad who does as much of the care taking as the mother. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Taken, and Mrs. Doubtfire.
As more and more real men have become caregivers — a Pew study found there were almost 2 million stay-at-home dads in 2012 — the characterization of fathers has accordingly changed. Audiences no longer accept the inattentive dad who isn't sensitive to the needs of his kids. Especially if he also excuses himself from caregiving duties. This year's most criticized father, Tully's Drew (Ron Livingston), is shown as mostly working, playing video games, showing a complete lack of care for his wife's mental health, and doing only the minimal amount of caregiving. A soccer game and some math homework assistance does not an attentive father make.
But just a generation or two ago, Drew's minimal caregiving would have scored him high marks. Compare him to the father from 1998's Stepmom: Luke Harrison (Ed Harris) is not considered a bad father, yet he hands over all caregiving duties to his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and girlfriend (Julia Roberts).
Read ahead for our list of the movies that got fatherhood all wrong, some that got it just right, and some that were just ridiculous.
1 of 19
Eighth Grade (2018)

In Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, Elsie Fisher gives a heartfelt portrayal of awkward middle schooler, Kayla. Her breakout performance earned her critical praise, and she became an award show fixture. But, it would be a shame to not shout-out her on-screen father, Josh Hamilton, for giving life to one of the most sensitive father characters of the past decade. Fathers of teenage daughters are often portrayed as distant, uncommunicative, and a victim of their teen's mood swings. But Mark is a humble, emotionally available, and keenly sensitive to her child's changing needs. One scene, towards in the end of the movie, shows how powerful a great father figure can be.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. Amazing! Generous. Kind of cute, too!

-M.B.
2 of 19
Star Wars (1977)

Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) is literally the definition of a bad dad as his name is a variation of "dark father." We're also going to group him with the violent and abusive dads: not only does he manipulate his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), he also cuts off his hand!

Also, he made "I am your father" one of the most famous movie quotes of all time.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. For committing genocide and multiple attempts of filicide.
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3 of 19
Home Alone (1990)

Hear me out. The parents FORGOT their child.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. No, seriously, the parents forgot their child TWICE!
4 of 19
Beauty & The Beast (1991)

Belle loves her father, Maurice, so much that she takes his place in what she believes is a lifelong imprisonment. And her father loves her so much he does everything to save her.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He stood up to Gaston for Belle!
5 of 19
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Following a divorce from his wife Miranda (Sally Fields), Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) upends his whole life to take on the persona of Mrs. Doubfire, a British nanny, as a last-ditch effort to spend more time with his three children.

The movie is remembered for its comedic scenes of Williams in drag, but this emotional moment outside a courthouse is one to remember.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. Daniel was a father who nearly ruined his whole life to take on a bigger role as his children's caretaker.
6 of 19
Forrest Gump (1994)

Jenny Curran (Robin Wright) and her sisters lost their mother when they were young and are forced to live with their sexually and physically abusive father, played by Kevin Mangan. He is thankfully arrested and Jenny and her sisters go to live with their grandmother.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. An abuser, Jenny's father made his children's lives miserable and got exactly what was coming to him.
7 of 19
Matilda (1996)

Mr. Wormwood (Danny DeVito), just the name puts a bad taste in our mouths. Mr. Wormwood's consistent verbal abuse of his daughter Matilda (Mara Wilson) is even more uncomfortable to watch as an adult.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. The abuse is just inexcusable.
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8 of 19
Mulan (1998)

A triumphant Mulan returns home from war with gifts to make her father, Fa Zhou, proud. But he pushes them aside to hug his daughter. "The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter," he says. Cue tears. Many, many tears.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He helps Mulan realize that she was always loved and treasured by her father.
9 of 19
Meet The Parents (2000)

No one could ever be good enough for Jack Byrnes' (Robert De Niro) little girl, Pam (Teri Polo). Especially not a male nurse named Greg Focker (Ben Stiller). So it's no surprise when Jack does crazy things, like give Greg a lie detector test and run background checks on him.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. His bizarre antics were driven by intense paternal love.
10 of 19
John Q. (2002)

John Q. Archibald's (Denzel Washington) love is so deep that he takes an entire hospital hostage to get medial treatment for his son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith). In the end, he comes close to making the ultimate sacrifice when he volunteers to become his son's heart donor. In this emotional scene John Q. shares his love and imparts advice in what he thinks are his final moments with his child.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He was willing to give his life to save his son.
11 of 19
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Gus Portokalos (Michael Constantine) may have been pushing marriage and children on Toula (Nia Vardalos), but he is also loving and giving. "In the end, we all fruit," will go down as a classic film line.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He accepts Ian (John Corbett), the non-Greek bae his daughter has chosen to marry, and buys them a home as a wedding gift.
12 of 19
Love, Actually (2003)

Liam Neeson is Daniel, a newly widowed father who has to help his stepson, Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), win the love of his school crush.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. Daniel throws himself into his new role as a single father, giving Sam all the love and support he needs.
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13 of 19
Elf (2003)

Buddy (Will Ferrel) leaves the North Pole to find his father, Walter (James Caan). And when he does, Buddy realizes his father is a workaholic who has lost the spirit of Christmas.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. Not only is Walter literally on Santa's naughty list, he also wants absolutely nothing to do with his son up until the last few minutes of the movie.
14 of 19
Daddy's Little Girls (2007)

Idris Elba goes through hell and back to get custody of his three loving daughters, and falls in love with his attorney, played by Gabrielle Union, in the process.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He went through the justice system to win back his children.
15 of 19
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Chris Gardner (Will Smith) finds himself as the sole caretaker of his nearly five-year-old son, Christopher Jr. (Jaden Smith), just as they are evicted from their home and his wages are garnished by the IRS. All this as he lands an unpaid internship to become a stockbroker. What follows is an incredibly emotional journey as Chris keeps his son safe while homeless for nearly a year.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. This movie is all about the lengths a parent will go to shield their children from sadness.
16 of 19
Taken (2008)

Can you imagine keeping your composure while listening to your daughter's screams as she's being abducted? Nothing was going to stop Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) from saving his little girl.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He hunted down his daughter's kidnappers across the world.
17 of 19
Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Samuel Perlman's (Michael Stuhlbarg) monologue is one every parent should internalize and look to as an example of the kind of guiding force a parent can be in their children's lives. Even when it comes to their love lives and sexuality.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. For being so loving and accepting of his son's individuality.
18 of 19
Captain America: Civil War (2016) & Black Panther (2018)

T'Chaka (John Kani) may have kept important family secrets from his son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), but the two shared a strong father-son bond even death couldn't break.

Good Dad or Bad? Good. He spent his whole life teaching T'Challa how to be a strong leader while also showing his son an immense amount of love and respect.
19 of 19
Tully (2018)

Drew (Ron Livingston) spends the first few months of his third daughter's life checked out of most baby care duties. He also barely spends any time with his two older children. But his biggest sin is the total disregard and willful ignorance of wife Marlo's (Charlize Theron) mental health and postpartum psychosis.

Good Dad or Bad? Bad. Though he is confronted with his neglectful behavior and attitude and takes a baby step (pun!) to becoming a better partner, it's still not enough to take him out of the bad father category.
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