Fathers and Daughters
Gabriele Muccino’s Fathers and Daughters is almost two films in one. One of them is the story of a man trying to raise his daughter the right way as his health fails and the other tells the tale of a woman struggling to forge meaningful relationships in her life.
The biggest problem with the film is that it feels like two films. It casually cuts between the past and present as if they are part of the same narrative but beyond some tenuous connections they stand alone narratively and thematically.
I found the story set in the past to be the most compelling. Russell Crowe plays a famous author named Jake Davis who checks himself into a hospital facility when his seizures get too much for him to handle. He sends his daughter to live with her aunt (Diane Kruger) and uncle (Bruce Greenwood) who take so well to her that they want to adopt her once Jake gets out. This is something he is very resistant too despite the fact that his health isn’t as stable as he lets on.
The film develops the relationship between Jake and Katie (Kylie Rogers) really well. Most of the scenes are focused on Jake as he does everything he can to create the best life he can for his daughter. Jake is a proud man to a fault shown by the fact that he turns down financial support from Katie’s aunt and uncle despite the fact that he doesn’t have a lot of money himself and plods away at his writing to sell enough books to ensure that he can provide for her.
Any scene between Jake and Katie is overly sentimental and nothing that hasn’t been seen anywhere else but Russell Crowe manages to sell them really well. He does a lot to make Jake feel like a well defined person with his own quirks and faults as well as showing genuine affection for Katie who he clearly cares for deeply. She is your typical “butter wouldn’t melt” child but she mostly comes in and out of his story when she is needed and represents Jake’s motivation more than she is her own person.
It works really well as a story of the unbreakable bond between a father and daughter that isn’t shy to show the emotional anguish that comes with financial difficulties as well as hiding a worsening illness. There’s a real tragic element to Jake as he refuses to give into his illness or get real help for it because being away from his daughter is simply too difficult for him to contemplate.
This part hits all the right emotional beats as it progresses. Jake is a very likable character who obviously makes a few bad decisions but his heart is firmly in the right place. His daughter is everything to him since he lost his wife and her mother so he gives everything of himself to make sure that she gets the best in life. Some of the scenes are very emotionally raw while being nicely subtle. For me it never crosses the line into melodramatic despite some hammy dialogue. Russell Crowe manages to sell this character wonderfully.
The only misstep is a manufactured complication where Katie’s aunt and uncle try to legally take custody of her right from under him. It’s supposed to increase the urgency of his struggle to support his daughter when people with more money feel that he can’t but it gets resolved off screen and fails to make any lasting impact. Jake’s health issues were more than enough of a barrier to him raising his daughter so this wasn’t necessary.
When the film cuts to the present things aren’t quite as slick. The present day focuses on Katie (Amanda Seyfried) as an adult and shows her as a woman unable to connect to other people on an emotional level. She is studying psychology and works as a social worker so she should understand better than most what it is that causes her to be this way but she refuses to admit it to herself.
Of course it all changes when she meets the handsome and charming Cameron (Aaron Paul) who offers her unconditional love and support in an attempt to help heal whatever emotional scars she has. Her self destructive tendencies get in the way of that and really tests their relationship.
I found myself far less interested in these parts of the film. It was far more compelling to watch Katie’s past with Jake being the focus than it was to see how Katie is in the present. Amanda Seyfried does a fine job of the adult Katie. It’s quite a complex role as she has to be emotionally distant all of the time but still has to connect with a young girl who hasn’t spoken in over a year so she still has to show compassion. It’s a tough line to tow and Seyfriend does it well.
The biggest problem with this is that none of it was really that interesting. Katie running away from her problems by being promiscuous is something that has been seen countless times as a coping mechanism and this film doesn’t really bring anything new to it. The progression is pretty much as you’d expect. First she sleeps with random men at the shortest notice then she starts to have her head clouded by confusing feelings about a man who wants her for more than that. She makes a big mistake before hitting rock bottom and making a life changing decision. All of the beats are familiar and aren’t presented in a way that is interesting.
Aaron Paul is a lot better than I’ve seen him in many other things since Breaking Bad but he doesn’t have a lot to work with other than being an idealistic nice guy. He doesn’t really have much in the way of chemistry with Amanda Seyfried and their relationship doesn’t manage to be all that interesting at any given point.
Beyond that it feels completely disconnected from the other story. If the film didn’t constantly throw in reminders that this is the same girl being raised by Jake in the other story then there would be nothing to indicate that she is that person after she has grown up. It really does feel like watching two different films as it casually cuts between the past and the present as if it’s simply changing locations. I’m not sure what could have been done to connect these elements more closely but more of an attempt needed to be made.
I didn’t find the present day section to be bad as such but I feel that there wasn’t enough of an attempt to make it stand out as a powerful dramatic story. The actors do a fine job at putting across but if the film weren’t massively elevated by the powerful past elements then this would have been a boring, by the numbers love story. Fortunately Jake’s part of the story leaves a lasting and effective impression that elevates the other material simply by being near it.