After a bumpy road to release, Netflix’s Fatherhood will arrive on the streaming giant’s platform just in time for Father’s Day weekend. Based on Matthew Logelin’s 2011 bestseller Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love, this feel-good gloss on real-life pain chronicles the journey of a widowed father struggling to raise his daughter alone. With Kevin Hart playing adeptly against type and typically polished direction by Paul Weitz (Grandma, About A Boy), it’s both an effective star vehicle and a tender tearjerker.
Fatherhood opens with a funeral. Matt (Hart) stands at a church podium with his head hanging, looking defeated. “This sucks,” he admits before the film cuts to a memorial service at his home. His wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), has just died and Matt, staring blankly at his bedroom ceiling, tries to contend with the reality of his new life as a widower and single father. Interspersed throughout the memorial scenes are flashbacks to Matt and his wife at Boston Memorial Hospital, listening to an obstetrician explain why she will have to deliver their baby a week early. Liz’s amniotic fluids are low and their daughter is breech, which means Liz needs to undergo a cesarian section immediately.
A conventional but effective feel-good Father’s Day flick.
Although the couple doesn’t feel prepared, they are confident because they have each other. The film moves warmly through Liz’s labor and the simultaneous mix of excitement and anxiety the new parents feel. But the threat of bad news haunts this joyous moment, and a few scenes later Liz collapses from a pulmonary embolism. Doctors rush into her room trying to get her an oxygen mask as a nurse forcefully ushers Hart out. “That’s my wife, what’s wrong with my wife?” Matt yells, his cries morphing from anger and pain to desperation. Hart, usually known for his comedy — and whom I still can’t quite separate from his homophobic tweets and rants against cancel culture — embraces a more dramatic side here, and is surprisingly convincing in these moments.
Fatherhood feels like an artfully elevated Lifetime movie — and that’s the point. The film knows itself, works within the limits of its genre and hits all the notes necessary to make a satisfying weepie. Consistently warm lighting coupled with a liberal use of close-ups and deeply affecting music cues (from Hozier to PJ Morton) heighten the emotional tension and add to the honeyed mood.
Everyone in Matt’s life seems to express their lack of faith in his ability to handle things after his wife’s death. His friends, Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), ask him if he thinks he can raise a child on his own and his mother-in-law (the forever graceful Alfre Woodard) even offers to take baby Maddy back home to Minnesota. To say their timing is terrible would be an understatement, and a grief-stricken, but determined, Matt ignores them. The first half of the film follows Matt’s early days of parenting, from changing diapers to sleep training.
Running a well-paced hour and 50 minutes, the movie differs in substantial ways from the memoir, the most obvious change being the race of the protagonist. Whereas the real-life Matthew Logelin is white, this Matthew and his entire family and community of friends are Black. The casting choices seem a purposeful way to reaffirm the universality of the film’s themes — the pain of grief and the power of love to transcend race and ethnicity.
What’s harder to judge is whether or not Fatherhood succeeds in reflecting the specific challenges Black single parents face in the United States. The entire film peddles in a pseudo fantastical world, one in which Matt’s boss, Howard (Paul Reiser), casually offers him six weeks off and lets him bring Maddy to work, where Matt cradles her against his chest as he presents at a Very Important Meeting.
Matt confronts an entirely new set of obstacles when Maddy, now played by the talented Melody Hurd (Them), grows up. Precocious and bold, Maddy struggles to fit in at school, where the nuns require the girls to wear skirts (a rule both she and her father staunchly oppose). Now that his daughter is no longer a child, Matt must navigate trying to see her as a person and finding his way back into the world, which basically means dating a new woman whose name also happens to be Liz (DeWanda Wise).
Hart and Hurd make a heartwarming father-daughter duo, with Weitz’s assured direction giving both characters enough space to breathe, grow and get to know new versions of each other. The rest of the cast is strong, too, especially Howery and Carrigan, who help the film maintain its light touch. (The other female characters, unsurprisingly, are more thinly written.)
Fatherhood benefits from impressive talent and craftsmanship, as well as an abundance of poignant and wistful moments. Though predictable, it still manages to work a certain heartstring-tugging magic. For this kind of flick, I think that’s all you can really ask for.