One side effect of living in a time of rapid scientific advancement is that story ideas that once would have been considered “genre” are now fully plausible. Both the new fiction film Delivery Man (a remake of the 2011 French Canadian feature Starbuck) and the 2010 documentary Donor Unknown are about men who, through prolific sperm donation, have become the “fathers” of a good amount of children. They played a role in so many conceptions without ever meeting the parents or offspring. Both movies look at what happens when those children become curious about their biological origins and the interactions they have with their donors.
Neither Jeffrey Harrison, the subject of Donor Unknown, nor David Wozniak, the protagonist of Delivery Man (played by Vince Vaughn), are actually the fathers here, of course. They are donors, pure and simple. Absentee fathers are a common topic in art, since a father can leave a family much more easily than a mother can, and that’s led to a curious insistence that whoever gives the sperm is the father of a child. I don’t buy this. I think whoever is there to raise a kid is the father. Of course, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a father at all (another idea that we’re not wholly comfortable with still). Many of the kids spawned by Harrison’s donations were born to lesbian couples. Family is what you make, not strictly what you’re born into. Donor Unknown recognizes this, while Delivery Man does not. Those divergent philosophies form the root of why the doc is a better prospect than the fictional work.
Delivery Man is a very odd film. It focuses on Vaughn’s character, David, anonymously stalking many of his unknowing offspring. He’s fathered over 500 kids through his donations (which is not as implausible as it may seem, since sperm banks aren’t required to put a cap on how many times they use a particular man’s sperm), and a hundred or so of them have filed a lawsuit to learn his true identity. Seemingly all of these young people have absentee parents and are neglected in some way that allows David to act as a “guardian angel” to them. He has absolutely no right to cross these boundaries, but the movie gives him a pass because they’re “his” kids. Except they aren’t. Beyond that strangeness, the movie is a mostly cliched bit of dramedy, accomplished with so little impact that really any viewing option would be preferable to it.
In Donor Unknown, Harrison is the father of only fourteen kids (that we know of, at least). The movie follows a few of these teens as they meet each other and their biological father and explore the strange similarities that genetics have given to them. While they aren’t automatically family because of blood, in seeking each other out they become something of an extended family unit. And that’s something heartwarming to see. It’s especially nice to see Harrison, who lives in a broken RV with four dogs on Venice Beach, able to strike up some meaningful human connection. The doc has the kind of emotional core that Delivery Man tries to go for but fails, since the real story has people acting normally and rationally.
Science has given us the ability to create fatherless embryos for medical treatment. How long before we can use such a process to let women conceive without the need for sperm? What will families look like then? Documentaries will always be at the forefront of exploring our changing world, while Hollywood lags somewhat behind. Donor Unknown is a good look at where science has taken us already, and how that affects people as they live their lives.
Donor Unknown is available on iTunes.