Reel Dad: Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star in 'The Father'

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in "The Father."

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in "The Father."

Sony Pictures Classics / Contributed photo

As children, we wonder who our parents may become as they age. We may be curious what we will need to do, and be, to help our folks when duties to care shift generations. And we will likely hope that we can remain patient no matter how challenging the experience may become.

Movies like to explore this natural passage. Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman were Oscar nominated in the 1970s for playing an aging father dealing with a younger son in “I Never Sang for My Father.” A decade later, Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson covered similar ground in “Da.” Twenty years later, Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman shared the burden of caring for an aging father in “Savages” while Christopher Plummer and Ewan MacGregor discovered what generations can share in “Beginners.”

This year, Florian Zeller’s “The Father” emerges as a significant study of what an adult child may have to contend with when trying to care for an aging parent. Through a series of conversations - some likely real, some perhaps imagined - we observe a parent and child who deeply care for each other despite the disappointments of the past. But caring isn’t always enough and, at trying moments, these people cannot understand each other perhaps because they have a history of misunderstanding. Carefully avoiding any temptation to let the story get sentimental, or to take sides, Zeller - who co-wrote and directed the film - gives these characters the space to grow in front of his lens as they confront what it takes to be what someone needs. Even when that someone can’t describe what’s going on.

Zeller’s approach to the film is remarkably matter-of-fact despite the serious subject matter. Rather than give his characters deeply revelatory orations, he uses their small talk to articulate the barriers that can build between people. Father and daughter chit chat over breakfast, catch up at the end of day, get confused over schedules, and forget what’s true about people and relationships. Because Zeller makes these conversations feel so real, we get to know these people. We admire the father for what he has achieved in life and how he can tell stories; we appreciate the daughter for the patience she demonstrates and the disappointments she withholds. Although we aren’t always sure what actually happens versus what the characters may imagine, we clearly see how these people care and love because the years tell them to be there for each other.

The performances are sublime. Anthony Hopkins - Oscar nominated last year for “The Two Popes” - should be in contention again this year for a portrayal of depth and accessibility. He makes us want to get to know this man despite how cranky he can be; he challenges us to look beyond his eyes to absorb the wisdom of his thoughts. As the daughter, Olivia Colman reminds us she can do so much more on screen than play monarchs. The actress is fun and funny, approachable and human, vulnerable and hopeful in a characterization that makes us believe in the conflicts she confronts to live one day at a time.

Movies can help us understand complex people and issues. “The Father” is essential viewing for anyone who wants to consider what may be expected of any of us, or what we may expect, as time passes and people we love continue to age.

Summary: The Father

Content: High. This exploration of the many layers that a father and daughter experience offers meaningful lessons into how people define the care they share.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to the sensitive direction of writer Florian Zeller, the film captivates our hearts as it challenges our assumptions.

Message: High. How this father and daughter navigate the challenges of aging and dementia reminds us how we secure strength from those who care for us.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about how parents and children relate to each other, and react to their challenges, can be meaningful.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about how parents and children can help each other through tough moments.

“The Father” runs 1 hour, 37 minutes. The film is rated PG-13 for “some strong language and thematic material.” It opens February 26 in theaters and streaming.