There are people in your life whom you meet who just sort of linger in your psyche. I am fairly close to 100% sure that Michael Gross, most known to American audiences for his role as the father of Alex P. Keaton in the award-winning television series Family Ties. It was, I'd probably assert, the kind of role that stays with you for a lifetime.
It has been over 20 years since I became briefly acquainted with Gross, whose work had brought him to Indianapolis for a period of time and led him to occasionally attending a church of which I myself was a member at the time.
Now then, I don't want to paint this any bigger than it actually played out. We weren't "friends." We didn't do "hang out." The truth is that for the most part he was quietly present and drew no attention to himself. In fact, it was that very quality that drew me to him even more. While I was a fledgling film writer at the time, I've never been one to exploit friendships or weird cosmic coincidences and mostly in those times I've sort of stumbled across someone such as Gross I've opted to respect their privacy and humanity.
But, I did watch him. I watched his graciousness. I watched his kindness. I watched and I appreciated. I started following his career, a career that has been steady post-Family Ties even if it has never really matched that level of what we might call "fame." You may know Gross from his work as Burt in the Tremors films. You may know from his work in three In the Line of Duty films.
But, let's be honest. If you were to see Michael Gross on the street you'd likely squeal with delight and go "There's Mr. Keaton."
That's changed for me now. Seriously.
In the span of a 22-minute short film, Gross has offered up what may very well be the performance that should define his career at least in terms of performance. As John, an estranged father living in the late stages of dementia who suddenly finds himself back in the lives of a family who'd left his horrific presence behind, Gross gives a performance that is so raw and so intimate and so aching and so vulnerable that images of his words and his body and his actions will stay with you long after the closing credits have rolled by.
Set in the confines of a small bathroom, the story involves Jared, John's son who has seemingly been thrust into the role of primary caregiver during what is likely John's final days. The story is a glimpse, based upon a true story by David Mayhak, an aspect of dementia not often given as much attention. While it is true that those experiencing dementia, especially in the late stages, often forget their lives and loved ones, it is also true that for some this means a rising to the surface of long repressed life experiences and locked away realities. This latter experience, it would appear, is what happens to John, whose family has always known him as an abuser, bully, racist and misogynist. After fiercely and combatively resisting Jared's attempts to help him with a shower, in a fleeting moment John reveals truths about his life and his past that could potentially answer long unanswered questions and help his long-traumatized family begin to heal.
Our Father has won numerous awards on the film festival circuit including Best Short (Big Island Film Festival, Women's Independent Film Festival, Best Actor (Laughlin International Film Festival, Los Angeles Movie Awards, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Idyllwild), Best Director (Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Women's Independent Film Festival, Best Screenplay (Women's Independent Film Festival), and a host of other awards in a variety of categories including original score, supporing actor, cinematography, editing and the list goes on.
It is often true that when I see a celebrity attached to a short film, I find myself wondering exactly why. Sometimes, it's a devotion to up-and-coming filmmakers. Sometimes, it's a favor for a friend. Sometimes, of course, it's simply true that there are actors and actresses who balance their high profile work with quality indie projects. I have no idea what brought Michael Gross to starring in a 22-minute short film, but we should all thank the cinematic gods that he did. Gross is, well, completely engrossing here (Sorry, couldn't help myself!). Gross's performance is transparent and authentic and, well, just completely freaking brilliant.
Seriously, who is Mr. Keaton?
Gross is not alone in giving fine performances here. As Jared, Michael Worth (God's Ears, Acapulco Heat) is heartbreakingly believable as a son struggling to honor familial responsibilities while remaining true to himself and his knowledge of what this mean has been and done. Worth balances fierce resolve with glimpses of humanity and hurt, a difficult balance that he portrays convincingly. David Topp (The Box, Quitter) shines as Jared's son, a young man whose tenderness is evident and clearly impactful. As Jared's wife, Eileen Grubba (television's Sons of Anarchy) gives a quiet performance that infuses the film with a nice, balanced sense of humanity.
The music by Andre Barros is wonderfully complementary to the film, while P.J. Gaynard's lensing is in-your-face raw yet never exploitative of the subject or the people. Brittany Ann Cormack's costume design, not an area I often mention in short films, adds to the film's rich sense of authenticity.
Our Father is the kind of film where even the title will have a deeper sense of gravitas after you've seen the film. Led by a truly unforgettable performance from Michael Gross and a tremendously on-point ensemble cast and crew, Our Father is a remarkable little gem of a film.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic