For those of you who don’t know, I was very close with my grandfather. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he was one of my best friends, to the point where many of our interactions had a playfully argumentative quality to them. He passed away a few years ago and in keeping with his personality, my family opted to celebrate him with a gathering, as much as mourn him. I bring that up because I couldn’t help but see a lot of my interactions with him in Sr., which showcases the relationship between Robert Downey Jr. and his father, Robert Downey Sr., who is the subject of the documentary. Not only is the doc funny and moving, it’s one of the best things currently playing at the 60th New York Film Festival.
Sr. is both deeply personal and incredibly universal, which is really an ideal combination in a biographical type of doc. Whether this sort of a relationship hits you as hard as it hit me, you can recognize its importance. If you want to learn about why Downey Sr. is an important figure in the indie comedy world? The film has you covered. If you want to find out how Downey Jr. was shaped as a lad, well before he became Iron Man, well you’re in luck. The movie covers that too. Combine both and you have a full cinematic meal.
The documentary is a look at Robert Downey Sr., a fearless and visionary American independent film director, as well as the father of eventual movie star Robert Downey Jr. The former, an irreverent artist, set the standard for countercultural comedy in the 1960s (notably with Putney Swope in 1969), helping to form the personality, as well as some of the future issues, of his son.
Not only is this movie a look at Sr.’s career, it’s also a portrait of a father/son relationship. In particular, the wonderfully playful yet loving vibe between the two takes on a new level when he becomes ill. Near the end of his life, it’s eventually time to say goodbye, which RDJ and his family do in a way that would make him proud.
Both Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Downey Sr. come off incredibly well here, as fully formed people, with flaws for sure, but also a deep love for one another. You see it also in terms of Sr.’s fans, like none other than Paul Thomas Anderson, but it’s impossible not to be delighted by Jr. and Sr. interacting with each other over the years. Even their final conversation, which may well bring you to tears, still is filled with their humor and quirks.
Director Chris Smith has previously made my favorite documentary of all-time in American Movie, so it’s no surprise that Sr. is a delight as well. Smith is just a fly on the wall, letting both men, but Sr. in particular, kind of lead the doc wherever it might go. That approach pays major dividends, for sure. Smith also is able to fill in just enough biographical material to clue anyone in who isn’t familiar with Downey Sr.’s work. It’s a deft style, fitting for the material and the man.
Sr. is my favorite documentary of the year so far. it’s entertaining, emotional, and packs an unexpected punch. Not only is it the best doc at NYFF this year, it’s in the upper tier of films at the festival, overall. Once you see this flick, you’ll understand why Netflix swooped in to pick it up. The movie stays with you, for sure, while also being supremely enjoyable. I loved it.