“You guys didn’t like Kyle. That’s okay. I didn’t either. I loved him. He was my son. But he was also a douchebag,” says Lance Clayton to his fellow teachers and students.
With the unfortunate death of Robin Williams over a month ago, I, like many others, grieved and looked back on the many wonderful films and performances he’s given to the world. If I had to pick which film featured his last great performance, I’d have to go with Bobcat Goldthwait’s (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait) third directorial effort, World’s Greatest Dad (he was really good as President Eisenhower in 2013’s The Butler, but it was a relatively small role in a film that featured a large ensemble). I didn’t actually get to see World’s Greatest Dad during its initial theatrical run. It was at the Museum of the Moving Image this past June that I finally got to see it on the big screen when the Museum presented a preview screening of Goldthwait’s newest film Willow Creek (World’s Greatest Dad screened after the preview screening of Willow Creek and a Q&A with Bobcat Goldthwait and Chief Film Curator David Schwartz).
2009’s World’s Greatest Dad centers on a lonely high school teacher who covers up his teenage son’s death (by autoerotic asphyxiation) as a regular suicide. The phony suicide note he writes and passes off as his son’s soon gets leaked to the whole school. When the subsequent phony “journal” he writes and passes off as his son’s is given to the school guidance counselor, the counselor has it published and it starts to attract a lot of media attention and garners surprising responses from his son’s fellow students and teachers. Robin Williams gives a phenomenal yet low key performance as Lance, the lonely high school teacher who puts up with his son Kyle’s crap every single day and still tries to reach out to him. Lance is also dating a fellow teacher but is forced to keep the relationship a secret, and is still trying to get one of his books published. Williams subtly displays Lance’s pain as he endures the same disappointing life everyday and, after the death of Kyle, masterfully displays Lance’s grief as well as his holding back of laughter at certain points to the absurdity of what’s happening around him. Daryl Sabara is terrific as Kyle; he really sells how despicable Kyle is (a porn-addicted, consistent academic underachiever who has only one actual friend), which adds to the hysterics when the school’s response to his “suicide” is slowly revealed.
Goldthwait wrote the excellent screenplay as well as directed. He uses the scenario in this dark comedy to satirize media culture, especially when it responds to teen suicide. I found it ironic that everyone who hated Kyle was celebrating his life after his “suicide,” grieving for “the complicated artist that they never really knew.” I was also fascinated by how people started to use Lance for their own purposes: the guidance counselor who published Kyle’s “journal” in order to reach out to students who never go to him (as well as make some money off of it), the students who created and sold the Kyle T-shirts (the profits for which Lance most likely never saw a penny), the principal who wanted to rename the school library in Kyle’s honor (earlier in the film, he had told Lance that he thought Kyle was retarded and that Lance should consider sending Kyle to a special needs school due to his low grades), and even Lance’s girlfriend (who was only ready to take their relationship public when Lance started to become famous and was the one who really pushed him to appear on a talk show to discuss Kyle’s “journal” when he didn’t really want to).
The talk show scene was probably my favorite: at one point, Lance wants to burst out laughing because he finds the whole thing absurd and just wants to reveal the truth (he manages to make people think he’s holding back tears, but it’s quite obvious that he’s holding back laughter, and it makes the scene so much funnier). The film is just loaded with absurd humor (one fine example: two girls, one goth and one nerd, who hated Kyle when he was alive virtually fall in love with him after his “suicide” and at one point start fighting over him). World’s Greatest Dad is an excellent little gem with a great Robin Williams performance, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t already seen it to seek it out. You can’t go wrong with this film.