Review by Sean Boelman
Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith is no stranger to showbiz documentaries, having made several acclaimed movies about various figures in Hollywood. However, “Sr.” is perhaps his most tender film yet, a personal and intimate look into the life of its subject in a way that offers an extraordinary level of access and insight.
The movie tells the story of the late iconic American underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. Although general audiences might not recognize Downey Sr.’s work, they undeniably recognize his son, who is one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. This gives the movie a level of cross-audience appeal that few cinema-centric documentaries have.
At under an hour and a half in length, the film does feel like it is trying to cover too much ground in a short period of time. In trying to be both an homage to the legacy of Robert Downey Sr. — who has passed since the filming of this documentary — as a filmmaker and a family man, it does struggle to go into depth with either.
However, what makes Smith’s documentary stand out is a portion of the movie devoted to the “Sr. version” of his story. Intercut with the more traditional portions of the documentary are portions made by Robert Downey, Sr. himself in which he uses his characteristically idiosyncratic style to tell his story on his own terms. This allows the film to become an endearing work of metafiction.
Of course, the movie also has the father-son relationship element between Downey Sr. and Downey Jr., and it is extremely resonant. Indeed, this aspect of the story presents a perfect intersection between the two storylines. It shows how Downey Jr. was influenced by his father’s filmmaking career, but also draws parallelisms between Downey Jr.’s journey as a father and his relationship with his own father.
There’s obviously something very emotional to the movie, owing to the fact that Downey Sr. unfortunately passed away last summer. This gives the film a very bittersweet feeling throughout, like we are watching a celebration of his life — we’re mourning his loss, but appreciating what he left behind.
The documentary is shot in black-and-white, giving it much of the same underground look and feel as the movies that Downey Sr. made. It’s an artistic decision that could very easily be seen as pretentious, but it works quite well. The film also has some very good access to clips from Downey Sr.’s filmography, some of which are difficult to find.
Although “Sr.” is an imperfect documentary that aims a bit too high, it’s still a profoundly emotional cinematic experience. Few viewers will finish the movie feeling unmoved, even if they aren’t familiar with the life and work of Robert Downey Sr. going in.
“Sr.” screened as part of the 2022 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person from November 9-17 and online November 9-27.