Our Father, 2021.
Written and directed by Bradley Grant Smith.
Starring Baize Buzan, Allison Torem, Austin Pendleton, Corey Hendrix, Tim Hopper, Ann Whitney, Keith Kupferer, Guy Massey, Lance Baker, and D’Wayne Taylor.
Two estranged sisters go in search of their uncle, a mysterious figure who may hold the key to their father’s suicide and their family’s unhappiness.
Bradley Grant Smith’s filmmaking debut certainly paints within the mapped-out lines of low-fi road movie formula, though benefits considerably from the compelling performances of its central duo.
When we first meet Beta (Baize Buzan), she’s living out of her car following a breakup, running out the clock before she heads off to grad school in Connecticut. Her plans are thrown into disarray, though, when she learns of her father’s suicide, forcing her to make contact with her estranged, deeply troubled sister Zelda (Allison Torem).
As they visit family to deal with their father’s estate, they learn that he had a brother, Jerry, who was included in the will though hasn’t been heard from in 30 years. Together, Beta and Zelda set off to track Jerry down and perhaps learn something about themselves in the process.
Most of us have seen many dramas in which estranged people – whether friends, siblings, or lovers – renew their bonds amid fraught circumstances, and so Our Father feels blanketed in an undeniable familiarity from the outset. Not every film need be narratively ambitious in order to succeed, of course, but Smith’s modest drama might ring just a little too common for some audiences.
The bulk of the film is a breadcrumb-following journey suffused with mostly light and occasionally cutting humour, while offering up insight into the perspective of being a young woman who merely dares to exist.
The central thematic skewers toxic masculinity; Beta is hit on three times in the film’s first 25 minutes alone, while later on both sisters encounter unwanted physical contact and gaslighting. In fact, men who aren’t assholes are in desperately short supply across their trip, yet the script is multi-faceted enough to also briefly touch on the siblings’ own privilege as white women.
Beyond this, mental health is a major concern, given Zelda’s tendency to self-harm. In surely the film’s most brutal and trenchant moment, she tells her sis, “I feel like I’m trespassing just by being alive.” Smith doesn’t have easy answers for Zelda because there aren’t any, though slyly surmises that modern America itself might well be a pathological condition. “If you need help in this country, you’re gonna need to take it by force,” Zelda adds. She’s not wrong.
As dramedy this is certainly a well-formed, easily watchable project, albeit firing a little too broad to be especially revelatory. Dialogues about misogyny in particular border on the prosaic at times – not to deny how completely true they absolutely are – while the investigation into uncle Jerry’s whereabouts is a mostly pedestrian one. Despite the near-constant flirtation with heavy-handed storytelling, there’s at least a current of palpable emotional honesty pulsing throughout.
But Our Father retains buoyancy mostly thanks to the sturdy performances from our two leads, who have just a handful of feature credits between them. Though the sisters are two clear sides of the same coin – Beta the switched-on, sensible-ish one, Zelda the “trainwreck” – both Buzan and Torem bring enough nuance to the table to ensure they don’t feel like pat, easily-defined stereotypes. Torem in particular conveys Zelda’s frazzled, perennial exhaustion with weary aplomb, and together their sisterly chemistry is unmistakable.
Technically-speaking the film doesn’t draw much attention to itself, but that’s exactly what it requires; DP Nate Hurtsellers’ muted, often washed-out colours befit the early soulless drudgery of Beta’s banal office job, and the generally dark pall cast over the sisters’ lives as they try to figure things out. A musical score comprised largely of pianos and rising strings often stirs, though also occasionally feels rather overwrought.
There’s not a lot about this film which stands out in any overt way, but it is sweet, agreeable, and emotionally truthful enough to succeed more often than it doesn’t. A seemingly restrained finale appears to ditch the genre typicality for a time, settling for a simple sit-down between two characters which denies easy catharsis, though there are perhaps a few late-stage dramatic revelations too many which make the closing sequence feel rushed, even hollow.
This standard issue indie road movie may not bring much truly new to the table, but still serves as a solid showcase for leads Baize Buzan and Allison Torem.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.