In his new Netflix documentary, “Sr.”, Robert Downey Jr. gets a chance to say goodbye to his father, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., who died last July at the age of 85. And he also gets a chance to have difficult conversations—including a heart-to-heart regarding their years using drugs.
The loosely-structured film, directed by Chris Smith (the man behind Netflix’s Fyre documentary), is ostensibly a reflection on the avant-garde director’s career. But it quickly becomes clear that the real story is the relationship between Downey Jr. and his father. Referring to each other as “Jr.” and “Sr.” throughout, father and son have an easy back-and-forth and mutual respect for each other’s filmmaking talents. Sr.’s artsy independent filmmaking in New York City was clearly a huge influence on Jr., who spent his infant years in a crib on set. But in addition to all the positives that came with a life in the movie industry, there were catastrophic pitfalls, too—namely, drug and alcohol abuse.
“I was a drug addict,” Sr. tells the camera frankly, recalling his years making movies in the ’70s, when Jr. was just beginning to come of age. “Mainly cocaine and marijuana.” In a separate interview, Jr. confirms that even at his young age, he “knew what was going on in that basement.”
Then, speaking on the phone with his father, Jr. states he’d be “remiss” not to bring up how his father’s drug use led Jr. down his own path of addiction. “I’d rather miss that conversation,” his father quips.
Though neither says it in so many words in the film, both father and son have publicly stated that Jr. began using drugs at eight years old, thanks to his dad, who shared substances with his son. Looking back on that time, Jr. says in the documentary, “We were all altering our consciousness with substances. I was just playing a game of wanting to self-soothe, or stay loaded, rather than deal with the fact that things had gone off the tracks. Honestly, more than anything, I look back and go. ‘It’s shocking that a single movie came out finished.’
But though some may feel that Jr. has every right to resent his father, the Marvel star instead credits his dad with helping him get clean. Sr. began to clean up his act after his marriage to Laura Ernst in 1991, and stayed clean after Ernst’s death in 1994.
“I remember it very very very profoundly,” Jr. says. “Even though it took me another 20 years to get my own shit together, you and Laura became this stable force for me.”
Jr. chokes up as he recalls Ernst’s death, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease. And he recalls how pivotal it was that his father didn’t relapse in the face of his grief. “When you lost her, and you stayed clean, and I was still out there, you were just telling me to stay on the planet, and not give up, and all that,” Jr. says. “You weren’t exactly some karma-free man. Let me not fucking— let’s not stretch the truth here. But that was a super significant thing.”
Sr. is clearly touched by his son’s compassion, and replies, “It’s nice to hear it that way. You deserved it, with what you went through.”
Both father and son sit quietly with that for a moment. Then Sr. breaks the tension: “Alright. That’s worthy of an evening’s nonsense.” Jr. responds with a shaky laugh, and the scene ends.
It’s a moving moment, especially knowing that in a few short months, father and son will say their final goodbye. But through making this movie, the two were given the kind of closure most of us can only imagine.