Of all the actors in Hollywood to make an earnest and heartfelt movie about being a single father, Kevin Hart is not the first name to come to mind. His movie career to this point has consisted of almost all comedies, where broad humor was the selling point, not emotional connection. He’s played well off of people like Dwayne Johnson, Ice Cube, and Will Ferrell, but hasn’t truly been asked to stretch his acting muscles beyond that.
So it’s fair to be skeptical going in to the new Netflix movie, Fatherhood, where he stars as Matt, the single parent of Maddy (played for the majority of the film by Melody Hurd). The film, written and directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company), gets right to the crux of the story, the death of Matt’s wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), soon after the birth of Maddy.
Both his mom (Thedra Porter) and Liz’s parents, Marion (Alfre Woodard) and Mike (Frankie Faison), are skeptical that Matt can care for Maddy on his own, urging him to move back to Minnesota from Boston. But Matt digs in because of his good tech job, his desire to keep Maddy close to her mom’s final resting place, and, most of all, because he wants to prove that he is capable of being a good father despite the obstacles in his way.
In many other movies with a comedian as the star, making Matt a bumbling buffoon who made it through in spite of himself would be the order of the day. But in Fatherhood, which was co-written by Dana Stevens, sincerity is the goal at almost all times. Yes, he makes some odd decisions and plenty of mistakes, but the filmmakers treat the moments — and the audience — with respect, acknowledging the truth that being a parent is extremely difficult for even the most well-prepared people.
Weitz and his team should also be commended for taking their time establishing the emotion of the film right up front, as the first 15 minutes of the movie tells the story of Liz’s death and funeral. It could be said that they wallow a bit in her absence, as it’s returned to repeatedly. But each time her passing does come up, the emotions they engender feel real and earned, and not just a manipulative tactic to bring tears. It also speaks to the reality of Matt and Maddy, or anyone who’s lost someone important, as the hurt doesn’t go away quickly, if ever.
Contrary to how it may sound, though, the film does have a good amount of humor. Despite the fact that Hart mutes his normal over-the-top persona, he’s still very charismatic and is able to elicit smiles and chuckles at even 20 percent of his usual output. However, they might have thought better of the comic relief that Matt’s friends, Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), bring to the table. Each time they try to shoehorn in Jordan’s flirtatiousness or Oscar’s awkwardness, it breaks the spell of the rest of the film.
Hart proves himself worthy of the dramatic part, and then some. He rarely strikes a false note, no doubt helped by the expertise of scene partners like Woodard and Faison. Hurd is quite the find, as she feels as authentic in the part as anyone could hope for. Also great are Ayorinde, who’s very touching in her brief scenes, and DeWanda Wise, who plays a compelling late-film love interest.
If this was a test for Hart to try to transition into different types of movies, he passes with flying colors. And the film as a whole is a tribute to good parents; every kid should be blessed with parents who care as much as the ones shown here.
Fatherhood is streaming exclusively on Netflix.