This documentary examines three middle aged white men who have toddler-age daughters. Talking head interviews alternate with footage of the girls in the playground, and in domestic settings, interacting with parents and each other. Author Phillip Lopate, well known for his books on teaching creative writing to children and, especially, for the book “Being With Children,” is surprisingly candid about the many downsides of parenting. Not only does parenting disrupt his romantic relationship with his wife and his carefree artist’s lifestyle, but even the powerful love he feels for his daughter exhausts him with its intensity. Fortunately for the viewer, Lopate is also a wonderful interview subject, astonishingly articulate and perceptive about the nuances of parenting.
Much of the commentary concerns the changing roles of fathers. Mark Williams feels the sting of criticism from mothers in the playground who perceive him as a novice in their area of expertise. He seems unaware that women live with this same sting of criticism from men all of their lives whenever they try to engage in the 98% of human endeavors which men think of as ‘their’ areas of greater expertise. The men are shocked to discover that spending time with their children is actually the most important thing in their lives, and jealous that women still get more of that privilege than men do. They recount their relationships with their own, far more distant fathers, who seemed to have no clear notion of what fatherhood entailed.
“The Domestic Universe” is well paced and intelligently edited. The footage of the little girls makes absolutely clear the enchantment and delight which these men feel for their children, even as they articulate their fears and resentments about fatherhood. Getting male subjects to talk about their emotional life at all is often an uphill battle, and Street has done a wonderful job of assembling thoughtful, honest, and perceptive comments on fatherhood from his subjects.