Out the gate, the cast alone for His Three Daughters demands notice: Carrie Coon, who deserved — but did not receive — an Oscar nomination for her performance as the combative twin sister of Gone Girl; Elizabeth Olsen, who has been awing critics since long before WandaVision with her turns in indie dramas like the cult-focused Martha Marcy May Marlene; and Natasha Lyonne, ’90s cool girl icon turned Emmy-nominated Orange Is the New Black star turned rumply but riveting detective in Poker Face.
Each not only boasts a heady screen presence, making their heroines instantly feel like the kind of women who know how to handle themselves, but also possesses a dynamic range that intrigues immediately. What might their new role be on the scale for damage and determination. Their best characters have both. This family drama, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (
French Exit), cuts even deeper with clever crafting. And yet this family drama, sharply written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (French Exit), cuts even deeper with clever crafting.What’s
His Three Daughters about?In a lived-in but tidy two-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan, three estranged sisters are reluctantly reunited as their terminally ill father ebbs into his final days, which involve in-home hospice care. The three sisters are very different in their attitudes and how they deal with the imminent death of the father they shared the apartment. Sam Levy’s cinematography keeps walls and doorways in the frame to remind us how close, and almost suffocating, these quarters feel.
Coon is the first to appear as Katie, an ruthlessly rational Brooklyn mother who starts the film by delivering a breathless but steady monologue about how the sisters have to wall back their feelings and grievances in order for them focus on their task: giving their father the most peaceful ending possible. She says, “The past doesn’t matter.” Not right now. Katie’s opening statement is full of New York neurotic humor, but it’s purposefully devoid of emotion. The speech is not only a set-up that she’s adamant to get her way, but it is also the setup for the first sophisticated joke in this film. The punchline comes from Lyonne’s reaction shot, in which her weary expression says “fuck-you” even though her lips are not moving. While Katie and Christina (Olsen) alternately watch over their father in his room at the end of the hall, Rachel retreats into her own bedroom to get high or hang out with her maybe-boyfriend Benji (Jovan Adepo). Rachel, clad in New York sportswear and a husky voice, smokes pot and watches over her father while Katie, the oldest sister, is in her room. Christina, the youngest, has a bright, almost-tearful smile and wears cheap, flimsy clothing that can cost anywhere from $1 to hundreds. Whereas Rachel and Katie are both avoiding their father’s room to avoid the DNR, Christina enters with a bright smile and a song in her mouth. Naturally, when tossed together, these forces collide in passive aggressive barbs, whispered resentments, caustic assumptions, and plenty of hurt feelings.
Coon, Lyonne, and Olsen are superb and nerve-racking in
His Three Daughters.
Thanks in part to Coon’s rapid-fire monologue at the top,
His Three Daughters
feels like a stage play adapted to the screen. This is heightened by the claustrophobic apartment, which traps the characters within a tense floor plan. There’s no escape from the emotional confrontations that occur at the door of their father, in the kitchenette or the living/dining room.
While Lyonne’s misfit energy infuses the film, Coon’s punctuated apathy sets the pace. She exudes the defiant individualism of the city, whether she is joking with the security guard or shrugging her sister’s bad attitudes. His Three Daughters offers moments of privacy, where each sister escapes her identity amongst her sisters in order to show us who they are outside these four walls. Kate and Christina do this by calling their husbands or children. Rachel’s walk in her neighborhood is the perfect way to bring her smile out of hibernation, and her shittalk will be understood as love. Lyonne was born for this role.
Olsen may have had the most under-shadowed role, since Christina has the softest voice and the least cutting dialogue. Olsen adds nuance to the youngest sister, whose breezy nature is just a thin veneer. Christina says in a difficult moment, “Just because I’m not complaining doesn’t mean that I don’t have problems.” And just like that, the bright baby sister is given depth that reaches into her love of jam bands, her choice to live across the country, and her unflappable warmth in the face of their father’s death.There’s no one way to grieve, and Her Three Daughters
puts several — all heart-wrenching and all-too-familiar — on display.Her Three Daughters rejects treacle and tragedy porn in favor of giving death some dignity.
Perhaps one of the most compelling choices Jacobs makes (outside of casting), is keeping audiences out of the room of the daughters’ father, Vincent (Jay O. Sanders). Cameras will never peer through the door, or even cross the threshold. By keeping us outside of the room, Jacobs avoids making dying a public spectacle and gives his father and daughters a private, non-film life. We can still see a lot about them through their reactions. Katie
needs a project to channel her nervous energy, even if that means targeting Rachel unjustly. Rachel avoids the inevitable by doing everything she can. Christina’s constant quest for positivity is toxic to her family. Benji is also given a chance to show his grief by delivering a speech on who Vincent was for him. This speech is so full of righteous anger and pain at the loss of Vincent that even Kate and Christina lose their composure. Adepo could be a dark horse for Best Supporting actor. He is sensational in a small but blistering part. )I’ve written before
about how grief
ugly business. It can be cruel and unfair, and cause us to react in a cruel and unjust manner. The film Three daughters
shows us how such chain reactions can occur without making a meal out of the characters’ suffering. It is a film about grief but the purpose of it is to show three sisters who were able rediscover one another through this dark moment. Jacobs’ tightly-written drama, which binds us to a modest home and an impending death, tells a story of love, loss, and hope that is ultimately hopeful. The third act’s flight of fantasy, while polarizing, is what I found most powerful. It gave me a greater understanding of the absence of Vincent, and the heroines who lost him. It is chaotic, charismatic and ultimately cathartic. It’s a must-see.