Turning away from grisly murders and harrowing sex cults, the true-crime documentaries and docuseries saturating streamers have recently been dominated by scams. Catfishing, social engineering, the looting of investors and tech bros—it’s the schadenfreude porn of late capitalism. Satisfying to our morbid curiosity, appealing to our smug sense of superiority, and all (mostly) without exploiting the families or victims of something truly heinous. Our Father, first-time director Lucie Jourdan’s Netflix documentary, splits the difference to find the worst of all worlds: A fraud captivating enough to fill a news segment, half-heartedly unfolded to the detriment of all parties involved. The case of Donald Cline, an Indianapolis fertility doctor who decided to personally impregnate his patients instead of using whatever samples they’d been promised (be they donor sperm or that of their husbands), is made as repetitive and uninspired as a creepy old quack masturbating day in and day out behind closed office doors.
Sure, it’s seriously gross. Our Father’s failures aren’t in its lurid source material, but in its leering execution. Jourdan’s a reality TV mainstay, overseeing everything from the thematically related sextuplet series Six Little McGhees to shlock like Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy and Ghost Hunters Academy. This familiarity with short-and-sweet, overproduced-to-get-you-through-the-commercials episodic narrative is stretched to its limit over Our Father’s 90 minutes. The Cline case is far too simple to be spread so thin, especially with so little interest in or access to the main players. Cline illicitly fathered a small Aryan militia’s worth of blonde, blue-eyed Indianans, but we mostly devote our time to embarrassing reenactments (with an aesthetic somewhere between Z-grade horror and Z-grade porn) and an unending procession of half-siblings with the same sad story.
Jacoba Ballard, the woman who was the first to figure out something was fishy after a 23andMe DNA test, took it upon herself not only to confront Cline, but to be a sort of welcome wagon to every new branch on her ever-complicating family tree. That means we get walked through the same revelation time and time again: So-and-so takes a DNA test, finds out they have way too many matches, gets a message from Jacoba, grapples with their new and terrible reality. Except…there’s not much grappling. Interviews with the misled mothers are far briefer than those with the children, and neither are particularly insightful.
Only late in the game, when the narrative’s completely run out of steam, are we given a glimpse at the complex coping methods of a woman more interesting than the entire rest of the film. She knew Cline socially and, despite detesting his mansplaining sexism, respected his fertility work. She then unknowingly gave birth to his twin daughters and remains torn, decades later, between her disgust at what happened and her love for her children. That’s a whole movie right there. We get about 30 seconds of it. Sorry, but there are just so many more Cline kids willing to talk!
It’s this focus on numbers—complete with a stylized chapter-heading structure (accompanied by an ejaculatory sound effect the subtitles helpfully describe as “man moaning”) documenting the mounting number of discovered children—-that makes the film feel so numbly dehumanizing. It’s upsetting and outrageous that Cline tricked so many women. It’s similarly upsetting that Our Father seems more devoted to using the running total as a shock-oriented reveal than to the actual people that number represents.
Aside from Jacoba, we learn next to nothing about the victims or their lives. Aside from two small sequences of rampant speculation—one of which loosely associates the very Christian Cline’s behavior with the Quiverfull movement, which seeks to push ideology and white supremacy through a “strength in numbers” procreation position—Our Father doesn’t investigate the perpetrator’s psychology either.
What we do get plenty of is spectacle. A parade of people tied together by an unwanted family resemblance, hitting the same Jerry Springer-ish talking points (Like, what if they accidentally dated a relative? They didn’t, but that doesn’t matter).
The hacky treatment of its subject matter extends to its length-padding filmmaking. Ridiculous details are focused upon during dramatizations that mostly feel included to kill time. A slo-mo DNA swab that should’ve just been one moment in a larger story is drawn out like a fascinating, thrilling anecdote. But that’s because the truth inherently lacks catharsis and the doc lacks the imagination and ambition to use that fact. Instead of focusing on the victims’ frustratingly fruitless pursuit of some kind of justice—digging into the legal loopholes that let Cline’s evil behavior slip through Indiana’s sexist laws, and the community’s Christian foundation protecting creeps like him—it falls back on reiterating its premise to remind us. “Remember, isn’t this nasty?” You know the story’s being told in an unprofessional way when sprinkled snippets of local TV news feel Pulitzer-worthy in comparison.
Our Father might focus on a different kind of incident than most true-crime dreck clogging the streaming carousels, but its issues are as common and myriad as its ubiquitous contemporaries. Media aiming to get eyeballs based on its synopsis, then failing to do anything beyond its sensational description, floods the nonfiction space. Accordingly, audiences have gotten just as hardened and cynical about it as every other flavor-of-the-year style of quick-and-cheap content production. I’d recommend reading some of the articles that covered Cline—either the Fox59 report that helped break the story or in-depth The Atlantic report—which, even if scanned with the same inattention that Our Father was constructed to cater to, would be a more comprehensive, more interesting and more time-efficient way to learn about the case.
Director: Lucie Jourdan
Release Date: May 11, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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