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DIRECTED BY: Chris Smith
PLOT: Father and son co-create a documentary chronicling Robert Sr.’s career and end of life, and Robert Jr.’s relationship with his father and coping with his imminent loss.
COMMENTS: Papa Downey wraps up a phone conversation with his son with the deadpan quip, “All right, that’s worthy of an evening’s nonsense.” Sonny Downey and his dad had just experienced a heartrending reminiscence, Junior choked up at one point, and this is among the many scenes in Chris Smith’s documentary Sr. that cuts to the heart of difference between these two men. Both were heavily involved in film throughout their lives, Sr. behind the camera and Jr., of course, prolifically in front of it. Jr. has tried hard all his life, being constantly “on” as a performer; Sr. is an inveterate observer, an artist whose main mission and reward is capturing the random elements of life (and art). Sr. typically utters no more than a quietly deflective quip or, on occasion, a simple, “that’s good, isn’t it?” when he feels he’s captured something worth sharing.
Sr. includes talking heads remarks from contemporaries (Alan Arkin’s observations are a particular treat) and “behind-the-scenes”-clips of Sr.’s underground productions. As a primer for Sr.’s oeuvre and professional trajectory—rising from nowhere to the heights of underground fame before crashing into drug addiction for about a decade—Sr. is probably the most efficient breakdown you can find. It also, by all appearances, is a genuine character study: not just for the proto-indie maestro, but also for one of the biggest film stars these past two decades.
Presuming the madness in Sr.’s movies works, it works because he goes with the creative current coursing through his mind. Improvisation, serendipity (planned and otherwise), and a sheer, burning desire to create stories and experiences in the medium of film all means his early output hit something right on the nose. Jr., of course, achieved astronomical success in his own way; not just through his innate talent, but, as remarked in Sr., through his willingness to accept direction.
This willingness seems to stem from a burning desire for approval, particularly from his father. The Sr. project began as a little thing for Junior and his pop to do to have fun together—a filmmaking father-son bonding experience. And even though Junior is “on” all the time, he’s none the less genuine for it. Throughout a number of interview-style exchanges between father and son, Jr. tries to guide Sr. to explain the meaning behind this or that event. Sr. never really obliges, however, and Jr.’s frustration is palpable. On his sickbed, Sr. watches a section of the doc-in-progress and observes, “It all looks sweetly narcissistic.” It is, but it is also entertaining and often moving. It is particularly satisfying to find Junior growing through the process, too. At the end, with his father’s passing, the son seems to accept, without tears or caveats, what life is all about: “We’re here, we do stuff, and we’re gone.” Sr. would doubtless be pleased by this summary.
Sr. streams exclusively on Netflix (for the moment).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Sr.’, much like the father and son duo, is a deep story coated in absurdist armor… This deeply personal project for Junior is wildly unpredictable, not unlike Senior’s approach to storytelling. Not only does this make it more captivating, but realistic… Senior never really cared for fame and fortune. In fact, he really had no intention of going to Hollywood and carving out a mainstream career. He was in it to do his weird thing with his weird friends.”–Emily Bernard, Collider (contemporaneous)