Netflix’s latest original film, Like Father, marks the feature directorial debut of Lauren Miller Rogen. It’s a dramedy addressing the detrimental impact of a life dissociated from others. A concept like this requires a balancing act of writing, acting, and direction to make it evocative and Miller Rogen proves herself adept at managing each piece. It certainly helps that Like Father is led by Kristen Bell (The Good Place) and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier), whose chemistry together makes the pair of complex characters they portray immediately convincing and worthy of investment. Though Like Father is likely not to be a breakout hit for the streaming juggernaut, it does offer a strong statement for Miller Rogen as a feature director.
On Rachel Hamilton’s (Bell) wedding day, her fiancé Own (Jon Foster) leaves her at the alter due to her obstinate refusal to unplug from her marketing job long enough to get married. In addition to this public humiliation, her decades-long absentee father Harry (Grammer) chooses her wedding day to make a reappearance, furthering her shock and irritation. Tracking her down the next day, Harry convinces Rachel to have a drink with him, but one drink turns into many and they emerge from their drunken stupor to find themselves aboard the honeymoon cruise intended for Rachel and Owen. Discovering that the two workaholics have far more in common than they realize, the two begin a journey of healing which reveals not only a similar pain, but the same longing for reconnection.
Based on a story by first-time writer Anders Bard, the Miller Rogen-developed screenplay sidesteps traditional narrative tropes of the romantic comedy genre – which Like Father very much is – by removing false drama and focusing on the thematic elements at its core. The film isn’t interested in creating outlandish scenarios or far-fetched gestures which woo the audience as the characters themselves are wooed. In fact, every time a potentially dated or archaic complication would arise, it’s dealt with in a fashion that’s swift while a doorway is opened for the characters to address the true crisis. The result of such tight narrative focus enables Bard and Miller Rogen to explore deeply flawed characters whose chances for redemption are tied directly to each other and it’s this journey that makes the story compelling.
Though Like Father is Miller Rogen’s first feature, the patience she expresses in her direction suggests someone with far greater experience. Rather than jumping from wide shots to close-ups which continuously shifts the perspective to keep momentum up, the camera maintains a noticeable stillness. In one scene, Rachel comes into her home – a low, wide shot establishing the location – and doesn’t move as Rachel moves in and out of frame. Rather than following Rachel’s movements as she briskly moves about the room, the camera holds, enabling the audience to take in the darkly lit, sparsely decorated home. Later, in a moment where Rachel finally unloads upon Harry, the camera holds on Bell’s performance, never once cutting away to show Harry’s reaction, enabling the audience to absorb the full weight of the words and to comprehend just how much anger Rachel possesses. The relationship between Rachel and Harry is the anchor for the film and Miller Rogen’s delicate, thoughtful approach not only keeps the audience’s focus on the performances, but enables the audience to see the characters as people, making scenes of great joy or pain take on evocative meaning.
The cast of Like Father is plentiful – Brett Gelman (Another Period), Leonard Ouzts (Set It Up), Blaire Brooks (Demolition), Anthony Laciura (Boardwalk Empire), Mary looram (Orange is the New Black), Zach Appelman (Fox’s Sleepy Hollow), Paul W. Downs (Rough Night), and Seth Rogen (The Disaster Artist) – make up the significant characters that shape the world of the story. Gelman’s Frank Lerue is Rachel’s boss and officiant for the wedding, which offers up the text and subtext of Rachel’s hyper-attentive work style. The remaining members – save for Rogen’s awkward single guy – are the assigned tablemates on the cruise ship, whose lighter energy offsets the heavier moments as Rachel and Harry work out their undercurrent hostility. They comprise the usual motley gang of rabble rousers that seek to get Rachel to loosen up when Harry’s attempts don’t work. There’s a bit of stereotyping in the characterization, but not enough to distract or drag. Brining it all together, and responsible for managing the weight of the narrative, are Bell and Grammer: two performers proven in their ability to shift from low brow comedy to high drama with incredible ease. The two possess incredible chemistry together, making scenes silly or serious feel rooted in reality. The core of Like Father is an exploration of connection and both actors demonstrate, through dialogue and physicality, how deeply the characters long for a resolution.
If there’s anything that brings the experience of Like Father down, it’s how the cinematography changes once the story shifts to the cruise. Establishing shots, both wides and close-ups, frequently feel like commercials for Royal Caribbean. This feeling is exacerbated as characters remark on the facilities, events, or the general function of the ship. While some of it – the dialogue especially – may be necessary as a means of maintaining the illusion that the characters are unfamiliar with how the cruise ship operates (Owen planned it all without Rachel’s input), after a while, it all begins to feel like a prolonged commercial. Doing so undercuts the otherwise grounded storytelling.
Like Father isn’t the first time Lauren Miller Rogen’s either written or directed and it shows in her first feature. The details that drive the narrative aren’t spelled out through obligatory exposition and the drama is driven by real emotion, not manufactured scenarios. Given the premise of Like Father, that’s bound to surprise many audiences, even if it doesn’t wow them. Even then, Like Father offers a delightful cinematic adventure where you can’t help getting invested in Rachel and Harry’s journey, even as all signs point to a happy resolution. If nothing else, Like Father evokes a desire to see what comes next from Miller Rogen.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.