Sr. review | A moving portrait of an artist and a father

★★★★☆
Netflix has just premiered Sr., Chris Smith’s documentary about Robert Downey Sr., a filmmaker and father to actor Robert Downey Jr. 

Sr. netflix

Most know Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Iron Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A few might even remember all the trouble the actor had a habit of getting into in the 90s and how his take on Stark acted as a redemption story of sorts. 

Fewer will know that Downey Jr. is the son of Robert Downey Sr., an experimental filmmaker who is best known for his film Putney Swope, which focused on the New York advertising world. 

The Downeys’ loving but complex relationship is at the very heart of Sr., a respectful new documentary by Chris Smith. The catalyst for the documentary is to make a film about Downey Sr., but the two Downeys have very different ideas of what the film should be. 

Sr

Credit: Netflix

What starts off as a celebration of a singular filmmaker grows into a larger, moving portrait of a father and a rumination on life and death. The further into the central relationship Sr. dives, the stronger the film grows.

The problem with documentaries is that there is no simulating spontaneity or real life. There is always an agenda, there is always someone guiding our eye and manipulating our emotions, because at the end of the day, that is the job. There is still a narrative to be told by someone to us, the audience. 

In Sr., the creative force seems to be Downey Jr. along with Smith. The film, which was in the works for a few years before the death of Sr., has become an eulogy of sorts for the late filmmaker. It’s all very nice and respectful, because it’s made by his son, who is credited as a producer and is actively telling the story and appearing on camera. 

But since the film is released only a year and a half after Sr.’s death, it lacks objectivity. While Sr. is beautiful and moving, it fails to really interrogate its central relationship because it lacks an objective viewpoint. There almost seems to be a conflict of interest of sorts that prevents the film from giving us the bigger picture of their lives. 

Sr. robert downey jr

Credit: Netflix

Both Downeys have a history of substance abuse and while the documentary mentions this, it never burrows into it, although it’s arguably a huge element in the respective stories of Sr. and Jr. The film is so respectful, as if not to tarnish the name of Downey Sr., it starts idolising him, which is never as interesting as showing someone as a flawed, but real human being, warts and all. Mistakes are what make us human and give us the chance of redemption and while Sr. makes it clear there has been redemption for both men, we are never shown it. 

But there are truthful moments. The closer we get to Sr. passing, the more Jr. opens up. We witness a therapy session where he speaks of time running out and fearing the eventual death of his father. This remarkable honesty and vulnerability on the actor’s part is what makes Sr. so compelling. 

Smith gently and subtly draws parallels between these two eccentric, often opposing artists. Both are funny, personable and talented, but they both have an aura of tragedy to them. Sr. leaves a distinct feeling that there is much that was perhaps left unsaid between the two, but their loving, inspiring relationship is a joy to witness. 

Sr. can come across as a little performative at times, especially when scenes involve Jr.’s kids, but Sr. himself always seems genuine. The film reveals him to be as sharp as ever, even as his body is starting to fail him as he battles Parkinson’s disease. Chris Smith’s film is a marvel, as life-affirming as it is devastating and a real celebration of art and individuality. 


Sr. is streaming on Netflix now. 


3 Comments

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