The Iron Man star turned the camera on his relationship with his father in Sr., which debuted Friday at the Telluride Film Festival
PHOTO: DAVE ALLOCCA/STARPIX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Robert Downey Jr.’s public persona as a quick-witted, self-effacing Hollywood ringmaster means he almost always has control over what happens in front of the camera.
But in Sr., the documentary he debuted at the Telluride Film Festival Friday, the Iron Man star turned the camera on his relationship with his father during his decline with Parkinson’s Disease — revealing a far more vulnerable portrait of one of the most famous stars in the world.
Sr. is both a tribute to his famous director father’s life-long commitment to absurdist, satirical independent film and an overarching exploration of the pair’s turbulent relationship. Robert Sr. put his son in his first film at the cherubic age of five with the one-liner, “Have hair on your balls?” (A line the two still found uproarious in the elder’s decline.) But drugs and art intertwined in the bustling Manhattan home RDJ came of age in, and his father admitted to absenteeism in the name of his craft, along with regrets over letting his son try substances. Both men would go on to struggle with addiction and sobriety.
“It’s kind of a redemption story that doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s funny. And those are my favorite kind of stories,” said Downey Jr. at a Q&A following the festival screening.
The film, directed by Chris Smith (100 Foot Wave), is ultimately a meta melding of two approaches: Robert Sr. is seen directing his final film as Downey Jr. trails, making a documentary about his father, who died in July 2021 at 85. It was only later that his wife, Susan Downey, urged her husband to merge the concepts. “Susan was like, ‘We can’t keep doing two movies. This makes no f–ing sense,'” he recalled, to laughter from the festival crowd.
Downey Jr. said he realized he was making a film that would conclude with his father’s death “about halfway through” the process when the Downeys were already grappling with loss.
“Susan’s dad passed away, it was right at the top of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s this weird thing where in Susan processing the loss of her dad — who’s by the way, a f–ing saint — and then dealing with helping me do an homage to my dad.” He added, “But I’m a realist and usually the timelines for Parkinson’s, they’re just not good.”
The film includes one of the star’s final visits with his weakened father, who had become confined to his bed. Downey Jr. shows himself taking a video call with his therapist mid-visit.
“I’ve got to admit I did not expect to be (onscreen) … losing it with my therapist. That’s when I said that nothing’s off limits,” said the actor, whose son Exton also makes an appearance with his grandfather, marking three generations of Downeys onscreen together.
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In the end, Downey said he felt the dialogue the film spurred between father and son brought a larger understanding of the time in which he grew up, to the point where “it’s not even really a movie about me and my dad anymore. It’s a meditation on a period in time in several generations. And I think that [if this] generation has a better chance of doing the ‘art’ part without all the trauma part, it would be great.”
Sr. is up for acquisition at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.