REVIEW: Fathers and Daughters [2015]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: October 1st, 2015 (Italy)
Studio: 01 Distribution / Vertical Entertainment
Director(s): Gabriele Muccino
Writer(s): Brad Desch

“I have very self-destructive tendencies”

The works of director Gabriele Muccino aren’t for everyone. I can’t speak on his Italian films, but the American ones are unavoidably cloying and sentimental in a way that must be accepted or ignored to find resonance. Despite being the one showered with praise, The Pursuit of Happyness didn’t quite do enough for me. I appreciated the story and performances, but felt the artifice. For Seven Pounds, however, I didn’t care. The entire film proved one giant manipulative contrivance yet it unexpectedly hit me with depth and power just the same. So when the opportunity to watch his latest Fathers and Daughters arrived, I was optimistic. It looked ripe for that same emotional catharsis and as such possessed the potential to also crash and burn magnificently.

It’s reality lies somewhere in the middle. Brad Desch‘s script is everything that detractors say it is, but at a certain point you have to realize this is by choice. No one is reading that screenplay and thinking it’s some intelligent dissertation on familial strife and complex love. They read it with an eye towards emotion and Muccino’s agent surely read it with his name in mind to direct as soon as the first page was complete. Aligning with all the sensibilities I’ve learned he has from three films, Fathers and Daughters allowed him an opportunity to let his actors embrace the moment. It’s extremely saccharine and obvious in its progression, but I’m not sure you can truly say it isn’t real where the emotion is concerned.

The sorrow we feel for every principal character is authentic despite being forced. They’re written to be sorrowful and evolve in much the same way. Tragedy looms large above all, a car crash sparking the chaos that follows. It left Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) a depressive, guilt-ridden widower attempting to wrestle with head trauma-induced psychosis, blame, and an undying love for his daughter Katie (Kylie Rogers). He struggles greatly, the psychological pain presenting physically in the form of seizures. These are a danger to him and his little girl, so he voluntarily commits himself into a mental institution’s seven-month program to regain footing and move forward. Katie stays with Uncle William (Bruce Greenwood) and Aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger); they hope to continuing raising her.

Desch isn’t done with that epic scope of anguish, though. He also transports us twenty-five years to see Katie all grown up (Amanda Seyfried) and battling the same issues her father did. Why does she? Well, we can only assume at this point. Since Dad isn’t seen anywhere during these interludes, though, that obvious assumption is probably correct. Death, pain, lost love: they’re powerful triggers able to derail any good you might enjoy at the snap of your fingers. Whatever happened in those two-and-a-half decades left Katie broken but cognizant. She understands her troubles even if she cannot prevent them (providing a sense of helplessness that’s worse than the frustration of not knowing). She’s chosen social work as a career to assist those like her before it’s too late.

Is the paralleling tough to accept? Of course it is. But it’s not impossible to laugh when Seyfried screams, “That’s my girl” as her current case (Quvenzhané Wallis‘ tragic Lucy, an orphan who hasn’t spoke in a year) rides a bike for the first time, an identical act seen minutes earlier from Crowe’s Jake enthusiastically cheering her on after accomplishing the same feat. This is what the film is. It uses these parallels to make sense of the pain. It sets up the love Jake has for Katie so we can understand her emptiness years later from an inability to find that same feeling elsewhere. Making her promiscuous is clichéd and her first significant love interest (Aaron Paul‘s Cameron) being a fan of her father’s book convenient. It is what it is.

There’s a fine line between lazy writing and intentional coincidence, but I do believe Fathers and Daughters should be categorized as the latter. Desch and Muccino have one goal in mind: to touch us on a level deeper than the surface yet shallower than a psychological experiment meant for study or interpretation. The film exists in a very specific realm, not talking down to its audience as much as laying things bare to be felt personally by each and every one of us taking the time to watch. We see ourselves in the painful truth, the devastating loss, and the difficult realizations our attempts to cope bring. Jake and Katie both make mistakes and each one becomes seared into their flesh as a reminder of their fallibility.

I really let these characters in for the first three-quarters of the film. They aren’t nuanced, but there’s something to their melodrama that hits directly and without thought. We know who they are and their actions are true to their flaws. Those who appear to be complicated aren’t (Greenwood’s compassionate uncle playing both sides before revealing his nature) and some who seem wooden are much more (Kruger’s vicious aunt who ultimately does have the child’s interests at heart). Crowe’s Jake is cartoonish in the lengths he’ll go to provide for his daughter, but his heart is so prevalent on his sleeve that I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. Rogers is adorable as the young Katie and Seyfried a welcome mess of insecurities as the elder.

It lost me while tying its loose ends, though. Everything plays out as guessed, but for some reason the filmmakers present it as a reward. It’s not. Instead the answers we’ve awaited with anticipation if not mystery arrive as self-congratulatory pats on their backs. It seemed they accepted the type of film they made and then suddenly they want us believing there was more to it. A glorified epilogue of rapid-fire vignettes strung together in what seems disorder is delivered with false gravitas that does a disservice to what preceded it. Things unsaid that we already understood are spoken as though revelatory and my patience official wore thin. Don’t tell me men can live without love but women can’t if the film distinctly shows how no one can.

courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

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