THE STORY – A tense, captivating, and touching portrait of family dynamics starring Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, and Natasha Lyonne as sisters who converge after their father’s health declines.
THE CAST – Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, Natasha Lyonne & Jovan Adepo
THE TEAM – Azazel Jacobs (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
Rachel (Natasha Lyonne) has been looking after her father as his health declines. Now that he’s in hospice care, her half-sisters Christina (Elizabeth Olsen) and Katie (Carrie Coon) have joined her in the family’s New York City apartment to help ease his way and say goodbye. High-strung Katie is hyper-focused on getting his DNR signed, sweet Christina wants to spend time with everyone, and Rachel is just waiting for the inevitable end. As they spend so much time together in such close quarters for the first time in a long time, they fight, make up, and bond ever tighter. Azazel Jacobs’s “His Three Daughters” is as simple a set-up as you can imagine: Three main characters, with occasional intrusions from three supporting characters, in one location, doing nothing other than talking to each other. But from these simple ingredients, Jacobs crafts something wonderfully complex, capturing all the joy and pain that happens when a family comes together to say goodbye to one of their own.
A piece like this needs great performers in order to work, and the central trio of Coon, Lyonne, and Olsen is one of the finest ensembles assembled for a film this year. Each of these actresses are interesting on their own, but putting them together results in pure electricity, each one bouncing off the other with such energy that there is never a dull moment. Jacobs wrote this screenplay with these three actresses in mind, and each character fits its performer like a glove. None of them need to stretch, but they all respond to this gift of a screenplay by giving one of their all-time best performances. Coon forces her way through Katie’s mile-a-minute dialogue with a purpose that melts away to show vulnerability. Olsen does the opposite, showing how Christina’s vulnerability slowly fades to show her reserves of strength. Lyonne is, as always, on her own comedic wavelength, but she dials back her exuberant personality to play the quietest of the three sisters. This is the most interior performance she has ever given, and her eyes are just as powerful a weapon in her arsenal as her body and voice have proven to be. The ties that bind siblings together are especially knotty, and all three performers are magnificent, capturing these characters in all their complex, complicated glory.
Jacobs’s writing style is particularly dry, with pauses placed very specifically to create a specific feeling. While the performers are excellent at translating this from the page to the screen, what’s even more helpful is that Jacobs has served as his own editor for the film, leaving him with virtually sole control over the film’s final tone. The few trips we take outside the apartment can feel like unnecessary attempts to open up the piece, but they work as moments of transition between scenes. His editing is razor-sharp all around, holding on changing expressions and cutting to the thing that has caused the change to maximize the comedy wherever he can. Given that the specter of death hangs so heavily over the film (Katie refers to the hospice care worker Angel, who comes by every morning to remind them that their father doesn’t have much time, as “Angel of Death”), having a release for all that heaviness is important and Jacobs has smartly filled the film with laugh lines and funny moments.
Jacobs ensures that the film feels true to life by keeping the film from being completely serious. Human emotions are messy, especially during a crisis, and “His Three Daughters” revels in the messiness of its main characters and their interactions. He has a keen eye for family dynamics, and much of the film’s complexity comes from the characters reconciling how they’re feeling with what others expect them to be feeling or even what they expect themselves to be feeling. At one point, Katie bemoans that she’s not actually what her sisters think she is but feels forced into it by them, as their situation requires someone to fill in for what they lack. Everything about the character dynamics feels lived-in and raw, a testament to both the strength of the material and that of the performers in interpreting it. When the end finally comes, it’s profoundly moving, but not in the way you’d expect – just when you think Jacobs’s worst instincts might have gotten the better of him, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat, bringing everything together with a devastating flourish that gives everyone in the apartment a moment of reckoning within themselves. Not everyone gets that in real life, but watching it on screen is cathartic. “His Three Daughters” deals with death by eschewing melodrama and keeping everything grounded and low-key. In doing so, it keeps everything broadly relatable and accessible, but Jacobs’s voice is so unique that it makes a film about the ordinary feel like something truly special.