Father Figure

By Benjamin Willis-Teff | Drama
A young boy waits to spend Fourth of July with his father. But he hasn't shown up.

Sam is a young boy who can't wait to spend the Fourth of July with his father Allan. But Allan hasn't shown up yet, so Sam must spend time alone with his stepfather Frank. Sam is unenthused at the prospect, but Frank is kind and steady, even in the face of Sam's reluctance.

As the day wears on, the prospect of seeing his dad begins to wear away, saddening Sam, who also senses the tension between his parents and stepparent. But as Frank remains supportive, putting Sam's feelings first, Sam begins to forge a new dimension in his relationship with his stepdad.

Written and directed by Benjamin Willis-Teff, this quietly compelling short family drama has a gentle naturalism, telling the story of a fractured family from a young boy's point of view. This perspective guides everything from the hushed, poignant quality of the storytelling to a poetic tenderness that suffuses the visuals, capturing the textures of young Sam's emotional experiences with immediacy and thoughtfulness.

The film begins with a glimpse of Sam with his dad in the car, as Allan drops Sam off at his mom and stepdad's home for the day, intending to pick him up for fireworks later that night. Shot with a distant, almost furtive quality, the visit isn't planned, and the storytelling deftly charts the unspoken conflict between the dad, stepdad and eventually Sam's mother, though they try to hide it from Sam.

These grown-up tensions hum underneath the rest of the film, as Sam navigates the disruption to his family time with dad and Frank navigates Sam's rejection of his overtures. The perceptive writing captures the complexity of blended and broken families, but it also has an emotional simplicity, because it never forgets the impact everything has on Sam. He is a child without much say in where he comes and goes, but we're aware of how much it affects him.

As Frank and Sam, actors Phillip Andre Botello and Jude Friedman both have an understated, natural quality to their performances, hinting at the difficult feelings that underlie the calm, steady demeanors and surfaces of their everyday interactions. Like the rest of the storytelling, they stay away from melodrama, but the relative minimalism of their performances has a resonant, heart-tugging impact, as Sam realizes the truth that Frank has been protecting him from, and Frank is there to comfort him through it.

Both delicate, quiet yet gently unvarnished about the emotional difficulties of splintered families, "Father Figure" focuses on a hard-won moment, where a young boy learns to accept his stepfather as a loving presence in his life. It honors the possibilities of love and affection within the modern family, even as it acknowledges the often thorny difficulties they present, especially among the adults in the non-traditional family unit. With divorce so common, the situation it captures will be recognizable to many, whether from the child's perspective or the parents. But it ends on a hopeful, optimistic note, offering a humble, heartfelt reminder that deep, abiding love can come from anywhere if we open up and accept it.

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