At The Movies

A spotlight on single parenthood

These heartwarming films will make one smile or tear

The films mentioned here feature single parents with one child. These are stories from women film-makers dealing with fathers and mothers fixated on the one constant in their lives, to the point where it is hard to tell love from abuse.

In the beautiful and heartbreaking Leave No Trace (PG13, 2018, 108 minutes, Netflix, 4.5 stars), a man and his teenage daughter have for years camped in the forests of the Pacific North-west. They see themselves as free spirits, but in the eyes of the law, they are homeless and his lifestyle choice is tantamount to child abuse.

Ben Foster's Will is a veteran of the war in Iraq, a shattered being in danger of becoming one of the many returnees lost to drugs or suicide.

New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie makes her leading-role feature debut as his daughter Tom. She is, quite literally, a babe in the woods when it comes to navigating life in town. Her enchantingly wide-eyed appreciation of running water, warm bed linen and pets will have viewers re-examining comforts they have taken for granted.

This drama, which made the best-of lists of film critics in 2018, never had a cinema release in Singapore, so its recent inclusion in the Netflix library is welcome.

Co-writer and director Debra Granik's rural tragedy Winter's Bone (2010) made a star of then 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, who played a teenager with an absent father taking care of her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings.

With Leave No Trace, Granik has drawn yet another deeply affecting portrait of families who live on the margins - sometimes by choice, often because of circumstance. Her images of poverty are warmly generous yet free of condescension or romanticisation.

In Japanese drama 37 Seconds (R21, 2020, 116 minutes, Netflix, 4 stars), a mother raises her physically disabled daughter. Like in Leave No Trace, the girl arrives at a crossroads moment: Should she stay within her mother's safe but suffocating reality or break her heart and seek her own path?

The precipitating moment happens after wheelchair-using Yuma (Mei Kayama, an actress with cerebral palsy), an aspiring manga creator, is told by the editor of a soft-porn comic book that her stories lack sexual authenticity.

Yuma, who never turns down a challenge, goes in search of a physical encounter with a man. Following a tragicomic episode in a Tokyo love hotel, the story segues into something deeper after family secrets are unearthed.

Writer-director Hikari's feature debut looks at the life of a disabled person with a view so raw and honest, it hurts to watch. But there is sweetness too, driven in large part by Kayama's Yuma, a woman who never opts for comforting deception when a difficult truth is available.

The single dad in German comedy-drama Toni Erdmann (M18, 2016, 163 minutes, Vimeo, 4 stars) is, compared with the parents in the previous films, on a different level.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie star in Leave No Trace (above), while Toni Erdmann  has Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in the lead roles. PHOTO: BLEECKER STREET/YOUTUBE

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is not smothering, but relentless in his attempts at reconnecting with adult daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). His spirit is rambunctiously child-like - he never takes competition seriously while she, a travelling business consultant, is obsessed with winning.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie star in Leave No Trace, while Toni Erdmann (above) has Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek in the lead roles. PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES,

In this Oscar-nominated work from writer-director Maren Ade, the waters of the father-daughter relationship never flow smoothly. How could they, with personalities that are so different? Ade shoots and cuts this film as a drama, giving its comedic bits a slowed-down, off-kilter beat, yet the scenes remain funny - often painfully, cringingly so.

It can be rented (US$6.99 or S$9.90 for a 24-hour streaming period) or purchased (US$13.99) at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2020, with the headline 'A spotlight on single parenthood'. Print Edition | Subscribe