October 8, 2015
“In My Father’s House” begins with a slew of troubling statistics about children born into single-parent homes, but this shape-shifting documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg is no sociology lesson. Shadowing the Chicago rap artist Che Smith, a.k.a. Rhymefest, for 18 months as he rockily reconnects with the father who abandoned him 25 years earlier, the filmmakers fashion an empathetic and emotionally layered portrait of a man trying to build a future by reaching out to his past.
“I want legacy,” Mr. Smith says after buying the childhood home of his father, Brian Tillman, and learning that he is living on the streets not far away. A longtime vagrant and alcoholic, Mr. Tillman concludes their emotional first meeting with a request to be dropped at the liquor store. His son refuses, and the initially smooth road to more than one kind of rehabilitation begins.
Yet the story’s seemingly clear notions of guilt on one side and grievance on the other are gradually nudged in unexpected directions. As Mr. Smith settles his father into an apartment and presents him with a contract to control his behavior, his own complicated parenting responsibilities and professional ups and downs play out in the background. Despite having a hand in writing two award-winning songs — Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and “Glory,” from the 2014 movie “Selma” — he confesses to an emptiness that success cannot fill. At the same time, his delightful wife, Donnie (who harbors her own familial pain), struggles to conceive a child and to incorporate her newly sober father-in-law into their lives.
Marked by unfussy close-ups and moody tracking shots, Charles Miller’s cinematography has a soft granularity that suits its South Side locations and questing characters. And though we might wish for more depth and detail, especially from the women in Mr. Smith’s orbit, the directors — who have collaborated successfully before, most notably on the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” — recognize that a more universal tale is taking shape. Watching Mr. Tillman as he cheerfully embraces sobriety to please his son, and is rebuffed by his former street pals for doing so, we see a poignant meditation on how our expectations of loved ones can become a burden that not everyone can carry.
The woeful tone swells almost unbearably when we catch Mr. Tillman in the bare loneliness of his new apartment, gazing intently at reruns of “Little House on the Prairie,” a show whose patriarch (memorably played by the actor Michael Landon) is Mr. Tillman’s aspirational talisman. In the end, though, it’s Mr. Smith who may have learned most from that program’s homespun philosophies — namely that love, like charity, is best given without strings.
Rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). A little language, a little drinking and a lot of soul-searching.