Sometimes a man can be unprepared for and surprised by fatherhood: sometimes it can because of the implausibility of the event or the remarkable capacity to love; sometimes the responsibility, the sacrifice, or the fear inherent in the transition from son to father; sometimes the realization of one’s own mortality. Other times, a man becomes a father when the children conceived through hundreds of anonymous sperm bank donations he made in his early twenties sue for information regarding their identity.
This is the premise of Starbuck, a surprisingly charming French-Canadian film directed by Ken Scott. Starbuck features David Wosniak (Patrick Huard), aka Starbuck, a middle-aged nobody living haplessly as a meat delivery courier for his family’s butcher business. His habitual irresponsibility and thoughtlessness are evident throughout the film. He is forgetful, botches important errands, and is all around well-meaning but unreliable. This is also alluded to somewhat ominously by unexpected shakedowns from two nefarious-looking ruffians demanding money owed. Since he is portrayed as utterly incapable of handling these small responsibilities, it is hard to believe that he could conquer the challenges and demands of parenthood let alone the reality of having fathered hundreds of children. David’s best friend Paul, the refreshingly candid lapsed lawyer who himself is lousy with kids, is both cynical and pragmatic about this possibility. In light of these misgivings, he agrees to represent David during litigation and defend Starbuck’s right to privacy.
Prior to the start of the court proceedings, David receives an envelope containing a large dossier of information including names, pictures, and biographies of the children beget by his alias Starbuck’s sperm. Though advised not to open it, David is unable to resist the temptation. He timidly pulls out one piece of paper and reveals to his shock and delight, the name and picture of a famous young soccer player. David immediately rushes out to attend a match, his focus fixed on the field with all the attention and tenacity of a proud parent, or an overzealous fan cheering with devotion. At this point in the film David straddles the territory of both roles. He has yet to embrace or revoke the responsibilities of parenthood. Not knowing how to act or react, his solution is to function as their “guardian angel,” and begins shadowing countless numbers of his kin, seamlessly integrating himself into their lives.
For David, the lives and abilities of these children begin to highlight and enhance components of his own personality. He feels accomplished and worthwhile because of the triumphs and achievements of his offspring. He discloses to his friend how impressed he is to have sired such a talented athlete. After this revelation, David’s own soccer prowess increases. He performs calisthenics on the field and sprints with a renewed and boundless energy. He preens midfield with pride, co-opting his son’s successes for himself. This initial boon degrades after he encounters some of the physical, social, and psychological challenges some of his other less acclaimed children exhibit and endure. Feelings of pride transition to inklings of responsibility. This shift is also provoked by the revelation that his on-again-off-again girlfriend is now expecting.
These varied themes of family are placed at the forefront of Starbuck’s narrative, but they are also nestled within the periphery. Tentative camera shots continuously reveal and assign value to objects, which convey more meaning and nostalgia than the most rote retelling of a celebrated family story. In one particularly uneven scene, David and his pregnant girlfriend attend a family dinner at his father’s house. While the family eats and converses at the table, the camera pans across half-drunk bottles of Polish alcohol and family plaques and portraits. These unassuming camera shots are more emotionally accessible than some of the more hackneyed scenes that appear in the film. One in particular occurs in the next shot when David’s father reveals that David single-handedly financed his parent’s dream vacation to Italy and later flew the entire family to Europe so that their children might join them for one last trip before the passing of David’s mother. Though this is an incredibly valiant and monumental gesture, it is conveyed with such sentimentality that it renders the moment insincere.
This is the problem throughout Starbuck. What starts out as a wacky and alternative narrative morphs into a sentimental spectacle. The film could have been more compelling if David’s narcissistic tendencies and social incompetence remained the focus of Starbuck. Or if the film was posed as a cautionary tale against the dangers of sperm donation (you’ll go blind or be sued). But instead, David is resurrected and remade by hyper-paternal instincts excavated from a lifetime of bachelorhood. These kinds of improbable occurrences are systemic throughout the film, imbuing the whole movie with a fantastical unbelievability. Though unrealistic in its good-natured conclusions, Starbuck ultimately promotes a version of family that is both inclusive and loving — a perspective that is too often false or overlooked.