Sometimes a film will just drop you in the middle of a bunch of character’s lives and just let you sit there as everything slowly unfolds, like an origami creation made of a stiff and unwilling piece of paper. It’s a little disorienting at first but you soon start to acclimate to whom each of these people are, what their intentions are and how they function in each of their relationships. Hollywood dramas don’t generally operate on this kind of a wavelength because it seems that studios want their characters to be instantly accessible to who they are. This is something that, for me, takes the realness out of the film and is a blatant sign saying “This is a movie! Do not expect moments of reality!” You know that Richard Gere will get his Diane Lane, Robert De Niro will reconnect with his kids and et cetera, et cetera. We’ve been down this road.
The Daughter, a brand new Australian drama from first time writer and director Simon Stone, does the former to my argument and slides you into the life of a man, and all those around him, as he returns home down under after years away in North America. Stone adapts his film from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, a story that asks the question if a family can be truly happy by omitting or ignoring simple truths or by outright lying just to make the regular day to day of existence bearable. It’s a simple concept that millions of people deal with every day.
Paul Schneider plays Christian, raised in Australia by his rich business owner father, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), then fled to the United States after the death of his mother. Going through some serious strife with his significant other, Christian was called home to be at his father’s wedding to his new wife, Anna, Henry’s former housekeeper. This trip also allows Christian to reconnect with his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and meet his wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and teenage daughter Hedvig, played with earnest conviction by the brilliant Odessa Young. Hedvig has a deep relationship with her grandfather, Walter (Sam Neill), who served years in jail for embezzlement and now suffers from bouts of memory loss in his ailing years. Hedvig and Walter bond over their greenhouse enclosure where they rescue and rehabilitate injured forest animals.
Christian and Hedvig prove to be the most pivotal characters in The Daughter, as Hedvig is growing into a young woman who, no matter how book smart she is, has the natural curiosities any teenager does about love, lust and sex and has no qualms about acting on them, no matter how uncomfortable it makes her sort of boyfriend. Christian, on the other hand, is living his life with a dark cloud over his head that is always threatening to burst. With his fathers upcoming nuptials and being in his childhood home with his former best friend, emotions get stirred up in him and not in a good way. It seems that Christian holds a long kept secret that threatens to change everyone’s life irreparably.
There’s no subtle way to put it, The Daughter is utterly depressing. It’s like a monorail cart that is constantly careening to a dark and bottomless chasm and there are no brakes. The almost small talk set up of the film doesn’t give much warning of this as the film comes off as an almost Malick-like calm and quietness, a kind of pre-reflection on something we, the viewer, don’t know about. As Christian continues his visit we start to unpack the emotional baggage and the outlook is cloudy with an obvious storm on the horizon. I really wish I had been knowledgeable about the source material because I felt this impending doom start to swirl around these characters the film wanted you to care for and, if anything, I wanted Hedvig to make it out with a semblance of optimism.
A large issue for me in this film is once we’ve got a good idea of who our cast is, the problems are addressed and some of the secrets are revealed, the final component of the story becomes very obvious before Stone starts to make that known. The Daughter shows it’s cards way too early. Even without the prior knowledge, I could see the footsteps leading to what I thought would be the ending and I was completely right. The path is way too clear and could have used some deviation to really wake up the audience and give it something memorable to leave them buzzing. Instead, most people will see the credits come, sigh with sadness and look for the stupidest possible thing on Netflix to cleanse their palate.
We live in a harsh world where people’s decisions can make or break more than just one life and make the future absolutely uncertain. The Daughter never shies away from that brutal truth. We are, if nothing , a sum of our actions and nothing is forgotten and when you sweep things under the rug, they will rise up to hobble you. I feel like I’m speaking in nothing but “tough life” metaphors but The Daughter never leaves a moment for levity and continues to crush you with the reality of how awful we as humans can be when we are unhappy and someone else is obviously happy. Some people can help but give into that urge to destroy something to bring us down into the depths with them. Is there a moral here or is it really just a developed sociological human nature? Maybe that’s the question that The Daughter asks but it was a little lost on me after it’s imposed depression. I give it a two and a half out of five.