An immense amount of the charm of “Sr.” is in its self-awareness. Junior doesn’t hide the fact that this project was essentially an excuse for him to hang out and attempt to really get to know his ailing father, someone who doesn’t like to talk about himself or his work in too great of detail. Senior (as his son endearingly calls him in the film) would much rather do what he’s been doing since the 1960s: write and direct. In fact, that’s exactly what he does for the majority of the documentary. Director Chris Smith, the documentarian behind American Movie, and Kevin Ford, a producer on the film, embraced Senior’s desire to tell his own story his way, which was a sneaky and ultimately effective way to peek behind Senior’s typically-closed curtain. “We were making this legitimate documentary about Senior, but it was becoming difficult to figure out what movie he was making from the outtakes of our own documentary—and what movie we were making because it was still taking shape,” Ford explains. Senior even found himself giving his son cues on where to stand and look, and how to deliver his supposedly-unscripted lines.
“Sr.”, much like the father and son duo, is a deep story coated in absurdist armor. For obvious, biological reasons, the Junior that Hollywood has come to know and appreciate in recent years would not exist without Senior. But aside from their physical resemblance and moniker, the two also share a hold-close-to-the-vest attitude with regard to their feelings. It’s not that they are stoic and intense—quite the opposite. The sincerity of a remark or observation will often be cut with a playful arched eyebrow and twist of the mouth by Junior, or a soft, reluctant chuckle by his father as he takes in the sights of New York City and makes dry comments about his surroundings. It’s as if neither of them feels they are able, or allowed to be, too vulnerable. Slowly but surely, “Sr.” pierces through that glossy, performative exterior in an organic way, just as a documentary should do.
This deeply personal project for Junior is wildly unpredictable, not unlike Senior’s approach to storytelling. Not only does this make it more captivating, but realistic. “Sr.” is aesthetically polished, but Smith and Junior are, like all of us, messy in their unique way. “I was raised in this family where doing underground films was the norm. It was very natural to have no interaction with mainstream anything,” Junior explains within the first few minutes of the film. These opening shots establish how Junior’s mischievous and playful persona endures and has rubbed off on his young children Exton and Avri. “Dude, if you’re going to throw a water balloon, hit me with it,” Junior casually says to his son as he sips on a cold drink in his lavish backyard.
“Sr.” is just as much about Junior as it was about the man in the title, and for good reason. He didn’t just want to receive the answers to the questions he asked his father, but he wanted to understand them. The intention of this documentary was not to prove that the Downeys are “just like the rest of us” (as some docs about famous figures try too hard to do) because, well, for the most part, they are not like us. That’s what makes them ripe for documenting in the first place. The early days of filming “Sr.” in 2019 made this clear, as it told Senior’s long-overdue origin story of the New York City artistic revolutionary. In 1961, he delivered Balls Bluff, the first short in an eventual long line of cult projects. A few years later in 1966, Chafed Elbows planted Senior on the radar of fellow absurdist enthusiasts. “Chafed Elbows is a film about an oddball who marries his mother and goes on welfare. It is an ode to Oedpius,” says Junior.
Senior never really cared for fame and fortune. In fact, he really had no intention of going to Hollywood and carving out a mainstream career. He was in it to do his weird thing with his weird friends. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Senior admits, “but suddenly the films started getting better. And weirder.” The documentary nicely navigates Senior’s lovable irreverent style (both personally and in his work) of telling stories that, below the surface, have a deeper meaning or are reacting to the tumultuous era. Putney Swope, which arrived toward the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement and was described as “obscene” “disjointed,” and “brilliant” fearlessly tackled race relations and ignited a conversation. “If everybody could get turned on to having a sense of humor about themselves, I think we could get over a lot of things that we take very, very seriously.” Senior wasn’t looking to squash conversations, he wanted to start them. And Hollywood—for or better or for worse—wanted in.
Given that the father-son duo has such a rich history in show business, the 90-minute runtime might seem short. But “Sr.” surprisingly isn’t about filmmaking. It’s about connecting. The intimate, black-and-white storytelling evolves as the doc progresses, and soon, “Sr.” was no longer really about work, but about appreciating each moment as Junior came to terms with his father’s worsening Parkinson’s disease. (Senior, no matter how weak the diagnosis made him, was always zeroed in on his cut of the documentary.)
By the end of filming in 2021, all the layers that separate you from the Downeys are almost entirely peeled back, and you forget you are watching two Hollywood heavyweights. It’s no longer an Oscar nominee talking to his screw-the-establishment-style father, but a son trying to make sure he doesn’t screw up what time he has left with him. Suddenly, it’s clear that the Downeys are indeed much more like us than we might have thought in the beginning, and that, whether it seems like it or not on the outside, we’re all wrestling with the same fears, joys, harsh realities, regrets, and hopes as Junior and Senior.
“Sr.” is available to stream on Netflix globally on December 4 and is available in the US now.