Whether it was the universe’s sneaky little design or just dumb luck, I couldn’t have picked a better day to watch the Robert De Niro-starrer comedy-drama About My Father. It’s one of those films that is bound to make you go, “they don’t make films like this anymore.” Don’t get me wrong; you’d likely walk away with sloped shoulders if you went in expecting anything remotely cerebral. But what works for About My Father is that, like the strikingly flawed parents the film’s a mouthpiece for, it doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is. And what it is in its very soul that it bares to you is the story of parents who were never handed a book on perfect parenting. So, they did their bests, and like real people, they’ve made a mess of it quite a few times. Here’s what I took away from About My Father, which has done the impossible and made a cynic like me appreciate a cheesy story.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘About My Father’?
Here you get a look at a pretty standard immigrant experience through the eyes of Sebastian, of course, barring all the sweat and blood that it takes to make the American dream come true. Sebastian’s uber-grumpy Sicilian father, Salvo, has given it his all to secure the kind of life for his son that he never had. And obviously, keeping with the immigrant parent stereotypes while building the life he thought would be beneficial for Sebastian, Salvo didn’t stop to wonder if his ways were the best for his son. And therefore, Sebastian’s “normal” childhood was spent laboring away at his father’s salon, never really knowing what hugs, hobbies, or leisure even are, and soaking himself in cologne owing to his father’s quirk about it. That all changed when a mild-mannered hotel manager like Sebastian fell in love with a chirpy Ellie, also from an immigrant family, but the differences in their respective affluence and culture could not be vaster.
While Seb was brought up with the doctrine of hustling, Ellie was born into a family whose ancestors were aboard the Mayflower. For a man who’d never really smiled before Ellie came into his life, nothing could stand in the way of Seb’s love for her and his wish to make her his wife. And when the universe conspired to give him the perfect opportunity to ask the big question and Ellie’s family invited Seb to join them at their summer house, all he had to do was to get the family ring from his dad. But Salvo had some reasonable and some obnoxious reservations about letting his son marry into a rich family that’s never seen the face of struggle. To convince his father to relinquish the special engagement ring, Seb had to reluctantly include him in the trip, and for the sake of giving Ellie’s family a shot to prove him wrong, Salvo reluctantly agreed.
What Happened At The Summer House?
Starting from the helicopter that whisked Seb and his dad away, to the family of peacocks that Ellie’s family kept as pets, Salvo could not be more uncomfortable with the whole ordeal. Granted, Ellie’s parents were the most gracious hosts possible, but something about their elder son Lucky being an absolute trainwreck and the younger Doug being quite the oddball, to say the least, just didn’t sit right with Salvo. His appreciation for Tigger’s luscious mane aside, Salvo was quite the critic of Ellie’s family’s ignorance about their own privileges and their general ways of life. He’s a man whose love language couldn’t be further from hugs and kisses, so when he saw Tigger and Bill insufferably mollycoddling their good-for-nothing children, Salvo was beyond put off. It’s not that Seb himself was head-over-heels for his girlfriend’s family, but considering he’s a gentleman who had to ask her father for her hand, the man was keeping his judgment as much on the down low as possible. And it wasn’t that Salvo was going out of his way to disapprove of them. But seeing his son on the brink of discarding all the values he was taught to grovel to the rich folks made Salvo tremendously insecure about the father-son dynamic.
As easy as it may be to blame Salvo for his prejudices and his irritating eccentricities, if you think about it, he really did have every reason to be thrown off by just how badly Seb wanted their approval. Dying to give in to Ellie’s parents’ evidently manipulative “offer” for him to be the face of their best hotel and hiding his knowledge of Bill secretly buying all of Ellie’s art to give her a sense of success, Seb was very close to becoming someone even Ellie wouldn’t like. The prospect of losing his son, the only family he had left after his wife passed, understandably disturbed Salvo. So, like the stand-up parent that he was, he swallowed his pride and did everything possible and more to get along with Bill and Tigger. Salvo’s efforts might not have been the most fruitful every step of the way, but after recovering from the shock of seeing his father in a bright pair of shorts, Seb genuinely appreciated the old man at least trying to work on himself for the sake of his son’s happiness. That is until the delirious Salvo decides to butcher and cook a peacock in order to impress Ellie’s family and is justifiably chided by his son.
‘About My Father’ Ending Explained: Does Sebastian Acknowledge His Father’s Love?
You don’t even have to look too far to pick up on the problems with both parenting styles that About My Father spins its story around. There’s only one thing that Salvo has in common with Ellie’s parents, and that is the fact that all of them only want what’s best for their children. What I was sort of scared of and was relieved not to find in the film was a justification for the toxic parts of their parenting styles. No kid should have to sweep the floor at a salon and waste away his childhood not knowing how it feels to have fun. And when it comes to Ellie and her siblings, ever since they were kids, they were handed things without even having to ask for them. Ellie was the only one who was at least trying to break out of the environment, which stunted her growth as a person. She was the only one to move away and try to figure out if she could make it on her own. What her parents stole from her by manipulating her into thinking that her art was bought by a bougie dealer was the chance for her to realize the extent of her capabilities or the lack thereof.
Finding out that Seb’d been keeping it from her only irked Ellie further and made her lash out at her parents. Bill and Tigger were terrified of letting go of their kids, and they gave it their all to ascertain their happiness. The same overindulgence turned Ellie’s brother Lucky into a ne’er-do-well drug addict, and the infantilization sent Doug into a state where he was hardly aware of his surroundings and the realities of the world. Seb, on the other hand, was right in calling out Salvo for his toxic attachment to him that repeatedly risked the possibility of the future he wanted to have with Ellie. But at the same time, he wasn’t necessarily unaware of the love Salvo had for him. It was Ellie who opened Seb’s eyes to the truth about his relationship with his father. If it wasn’t for Salvo, Seb probably wouldn’t have become the man that Ellie came to know and love.
So far, About My Father had been riskily edging close to defending the toxic parenting styles, especially that of Salvo. But when Seb battled his panic attack to fly to his father and bring him back, the film quite shrewdly relieved us of the confusion about its message. By not justifying any of Salvo’s serious flaws and still acknowledging his love, Seb proved that love doesn’t have to exist in a state of absolute perfection. Parents can be loved without being idealized. They make mistakes because they’re only human, and as long as they’re not sticking to their wrongs, they’re certainly not beyond hope. The ending sequence was only more affirming of real family dynamics. A man who was as grey as age itself shed his reservations to dress like a Christmas present for the family portrait. And the overbearing parents, who were terrified to let go of their precious daughter, realized that she deserved to live her life on her own terms. The fact that their bickering continued was only an endearingly lifelike portrayal of a family where people could be themselves in the safe embrace of love.