Sundance Film Festival
Sundance has been over for more than a week now, but four of the best movies I saw at this year’s festival dealt with father and daughter relationships in interesting and unique ways. While I’m not a father nor have I ever been a daughter, the fact I could relate to these connections in four distinct films seem like solid proof that there’s real talent at work, both in front of and behind the camera In two of the cases, it shouldn’t be surprising, because they’re made by filmmakers who have been at Sundance with highly-regarded earlier films. The two other movies are by first-time filmmakers.
What’s interesting is not so much the fact that there are four movies revolving around father-daughter relationships, as much as the lack of a motherly presence in these four stories. Not all the movies get into what happened with the mother, although in one case, that’s very much a part of the film’s emotional core.
Gunpowder and Sky
Hearts Beat Loud
Bret Haley was at Sundance in 2017 with his movie The Hero starring Sam Elliot, and he brought back one of that film’s stars, Nick Offerman, to star in his new film HEARTS BEAT LOUD. Offerman plays the beleaguered owner of a Red Hook, Brooklyn record store, whose daughter (Kiersey Clemons) is preparing to go off to med school in California, but also just started a new relationship with a young woman, played by Sasha Lane (American Honey). They both are musicians, and he convinces her to collaborate as a band of sorts.
I probably enjoyed the movie as much for its music with fantastic tunes written by Keegan DeWitt, as I did for its exploration of how the father and daughter dynamic drives the duo’s music, but Haley has crated another pleasant crowd-pleasing dramedy. It’s especially interesting for the number of fantastic two-handed scenes between Offerman and Clemons with their co-stars Toni Colette, Blythe Danner (another Haley returnee!), Ted Danson and Lane. But mostly, it’s the chemistry built by Offerman and Clemons as father and daughter writing songs and playing music together that makes the film so thoroughly enjoyable. (Incidentally, I did a fun interview with Haley, Offerman and Clemons, which I hope to share soon, but more likely once the movie gets a release date.)
Leave No Trace
Debra Granik is another Sundance returnee, and considering her last narrative film Winter’s Bone was nominated for Best Picture and its star Jennifer Lawrence went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, her new film LEAVE NO TRACE arrived at Sundance with a lot of interest.
The film stars Ben Foster as the father of a teen daughter, played by newcomer Thomasin McKenzie, who are living in the forests of Portland, basically trying to remain off the grid after walking away from society.
One of the big questions that will be asked by those who watch Leave No Trace is whether Foster’s character ever has his daughter’s best interests in mind, especially after they’re picked up by social services and given a home. That doesn’t work out, but even once they find a small trailer park community that seems to fit in better with his world-view, he has a wanderlust that continues to endanger his daughter.
While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Winter’s Bone – which now that I think about it, also partially dealt with a father and daughter relationship in some ways – Leave No Trace is a fantastic character piece by Granik that forces you to ask yourself questions about what you’d do if you were in the same situation as Foster and McKenzie. The performances by both actors are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film gives Foster a nice boost, as well as introducing many to McKenzie’s potential as an actor. Not only that, but Granik has greatly improved as a filmmaker as far as establishing the environments in which father-daughter
Because both filmmakers above were known quantities, it was easier to take the time to check out their films, but I was equally or more impressed with Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Aneesh Chagaty’s Search, both movies which use social media and video blogging as part of their central storylines.
Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions
Maybe the father-daughter relationships don’t seem to play as large part of the storytelling in either movie, but in fact, it drives both stories, especially SEARCH, which stars Star Trek‘s John Cho as a father whose teen daughter vanishes, forcing him to turn to modern technology to try and find her.
Chagaty’s directorial debut begins with an amazing five-minute introduction to Cho’s David Kim, his wife Pam and their daughter Margot, who we watch grow up through family videos on a computer screen. During this opening montage, Pam eventually gets sick and dies, and though Chagaty continues the computer screen backdrop for the entire film, the film’s first five minutes is so key in introducing the family in a similar way as that famous montage from Pixar’s Up that her death has just as much of an impact. It also does wonders to create a bond between David and his daughter Margot that only lasts for a short while before Margot vanishes in the middle of the night sending David on a desperate and panicked search to find her. The detective on the case (Debra Messing) thinks she ran away, and all the facts point to that, but David thinks otherwise, and it’s his love for his daughter, the last vestige of his late wife, which drives him through the film even if we don’t necessarily see them together very much.
Search is a fantastic film that uses its high concept filmmaking technique quite effectively, and it’s a very marketable film in that sense, which should allow Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions to find a large potential audience for it. I also have to add that John Cho is fantastic in a more dramatic role as the missing girls’ father, and hopefully it will add to him being able to get more strong roles like this.
Lastly, Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE was brought to Sundance by A24 to start building buzz for a movie that should be able to find a similarly wide ranging audience as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
The movie revolves around 13-year-old Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher, who like Thomsin McKenzie above is likely to be a big star from her performance in the film. It’s mostly about Kayla trying to make a mark during her last week of middle school before going off to high school. She’s known for being quiet and shy by her teachers and classmates, and she wants to change that about herself.
Burnham’s film is warm and funny and so relatable in that regard, but one of the things I loved the most about Eighth Grade was Kayla’s relationship with her single father, played by Josh Hamilton (who has appeared in films by Gerwig and her beau Noah Baumbach, in case you were wondering about the connection to A24 and producer Scott Rudin.)
The scenes between Fisher and Hamilton are very funny in how awkward Kayla’s father is when dealing with his growing teenage daughter, with whom he is now having trouble relating. While it’s not the core of the story, it’s partially what makes Eighth Grade so joyously entertaining, and it brings enough to the mix that you really understand where both he and Kayla are coming from in trying to grow together through her changes.
I wasn’t really familiar with comedian and musician Bo Burnham or his work before seeing Eighth Grade, but it was one of the better directorial debuts I saw at Sundance, and I was especially interested with how he worked with the actors to create these great characters. (Fisher is kind of like a teenage Amy Schumer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s ever cast as a younger Schumer in a future comedy.)
All of the movies above either already had or received distribution after their Sundance premieres, and all of them should be released sometime this year. I urge you to check them all out even if like me, you’re neither a father or a daughter.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor