starring Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn
written and directed by Christy Hall
by Walter Chaw Girlie (Dakota Johson) gets in a cab from JFK to Manhattan, and over the long drive through construction slowdowns and other diversions, she and driver Clark (Sean Penn)...talk. Girlie receives a few lewd texts from her lover, sure, but Clark praises her for how little she's on her phone in this age of screen intermediaries. He's surprised again when she wants to know his name: "You are a human being," he says, and there's hardly anyone who could deliver this line the way Penn does: free of insinuation or sarcasm, hinting at emotions like gratefulness and even flattered surprise. Penn is one of our great "face" actors. Robbed of tools other performers rely upon, he won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking, where he spent most of his time behind a glass partition, shackled to a table. The four inches reflected in the rearview mirror in Daddio are a better actor than almost anyone who's ever done this. His persona outside of film has outgrown him in many ways, but I was shocked by how glad I was to be in his company again. Penn's large humanitarian gestures and vile history of abuse, spotlighted whenever he shares his unevolved and indeed apparently devolving Neanderthal viewpoints on women and consent have obscured his accomplishments as an actor. Perhaps rightfully so. Seeing him on a big screen again made me realize how much I'd missed him in this context--and how much I wish it were the only context in which I knew him.
If it's a prize match, Johnson equals him, blow for devastating blow. Which isn't to say that either actor's turn is wild or exaggerated. Just the opposite: Penn and Johnson are deadly in their precision and subtlety. Their words may be provocative, but the string is carried in the set of the lip and the shine of the eye. These are minuscule performances designed for the microscopic attention of the camera, as well as the viewer. The topic of Girlie's conversation with Clark is sexual politics: cultural anthropology and the ins and outs of primate behaviour. Clark lays out how men want proof of achievement, and Girlie hides her phone screen as her older, married lover keeps texting asking her for nudes and begging her to visit him while the kids are asleep and the wife is away. She is successful and assured, and vulnerable and lonely. He is unsuccessful in life and love, albeit smart enough to be able to mark all the decisions he made that have brought him to the driver's seat of a cab instead of the passenger's. I kept thinking of the relationship between Jeff and Lisa in Rear Window: sparring partners in the same weight class, however diametrically opposed they may seem, though he figures that out before she does.
Playwright Christy Hall makes her dazzling feature debut with Daddio. Shot on a tight 16-day schedule in a single, cramped location, the film itself is dialogue-dense and high-concept. Hall had a lot of cards stacked against her and brought the project in without any of the expected bloat or hesitation marks of a first-time filmmaker. She brings a clear voice to the project, and a sense of dramatic fairness. Clark is crude, base, rude; he says things to a stranger he shouldn't say to anyone, and Girlie handles him with the adroitness beautiful women develop as armour against men like him. But he's also tender-hearted, concerned, a contradiction of a fatherly rogue. I've known and loved men like Clark. Men who never had children of their own, so the edges have never been sanded off completely--but you can always tell how they relish the opportunity to be a mentor. Knowledge, after all, has no real purpose but to be shared. As for Girlie, who's coming to learn that no amount of success will matter as much as she wants it to, so long as she looks the way she does, this trip is like a mortician performing her own autopsy. Girlie's forced to confront the heartbreak of not being seen, and to begin the process of acceptance that her beauty is as much a birthright as her awareness of how it has helped her. And how it impedes her. She's a soldier digging new trenches in an endless war of gendered attrition. Daddio is a lovely start to Hall's career. I'm excited to see the other stops she makes along the way.