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Daddy Issues: Cinema hardly ever gets father-daughter duos right

In a cinematic landscape lacking in meaningful father-daughter relationships, ‘On the Rocks’ is a welcome exception. Annabel Nugent explores why it has taken so long for film to catch on

Tuesday 03 November 2020 18:05 GMT
The relationship on trial is actually the one with Laura’s  father in ‘On the Rocks’
The relationship on trial is actually the one with Laura’s  father in ‘On the Rocks’ (Rex Features)

If I asked you to name the daughter in Taken, could you? The 2008 action film appears on every list of “Best Father-Daughter Movies” – but most people wouldn’t be able to name her if Liam Neeson had a gun to their head. Having his beloved daughter brutally kidnapped into an Albanian sex ring makes a perfect excuse for showing off Bryan Mills’s “very particular set of skills”, but beyond providing a father with a saviour storyline, Kim (that’s her name, by the way) is irrelevant.

When it comes to father-daughter duos, it seems that cinema can’t deliver. Even in daughter-led films – as in 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless and just about every other rom-com – dad is reduced to a single function: saying no. He is written as a simulacrum of authority; the role may as well be played by a moustachioed traffic cone.

When one role is fleshed out, the other almost always suffers. The characters of dad and daughter are never on equal footing; one invariably serves to bolster the other’s character arc. In fact, it is shocking how seldom the relationship has been explored in film. But as filmmakers continue to seek out new stories to tell, this previously sidelined familial tie is slowly creeping to the foreground.

On the Rocks is one such film. Simply for the fact that it shows a dad and his daughter hanging out, Sofia Coppola’s new movie stands out. The film follows Laura (played with all the enthusiasm of a soggy dish towel by Rashida Jones), an author living in a £3m New York loft with a “2016 Bernie” sticker slapped on the front door. At the behest of her gadabout father (Bill Murray), she embarks on a series of caviar-fuelled stakeouts to find out whether her husband is sleeping with his co-worker. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the relationship on trial is actually the one with her father. Smuggled into this mild-mannered comedy is an exploration of this complex yet largely ignored familial bond.

There has been no shortage of mothers and daughters on screen. Even before Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf’s heartbreaking and relatable dressing room scene in Lady Bird (“I wish that you liked me”), there was a decent back catalogue of movies to dive into come Mother’s Day – Thirteen; Terms of Endearment; Steel Magnolias; Landline; I, Tonya; Mermaids. These films aren’t all matching outfits and dancing in the kitchen, but a sugar-coated portrayal of maternal love is nothing compared to the complex and messy reality of what it means to be a mother to a daughter, a daughter to a mother.

Laura (Rashida Jones) and her father Felix (Bill Murray) embark on a series of impromptu escapades (Apple/AP)

Fathers and sons too have received their fair share of screen time. The Godfather, The Road, Fences, Honey Boy, Boyhood, Beginners, Beautiful Boy; the list of worthwhile dad-son movies is long and expansive, spanning genres from throwaway action flicks to indie comedies and tear-jerking dramas.

Fathers and their daughters are typically afforded no such nuance. Historically, the relationship has been saddled with formulaic writing and lazy representation. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given how cinema has typically seen this particular familial bond as possessing neither the fierce intensity of a mother-daughter relationship, not the fraternal banter found in that between a father and son. Simply put: father and daughter relationships have just not been seen as interesting enough to deserve meaningful screen time.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, where cinema has picked up on the relationship’s potential for drama. John Mahoney’s doting dad in Say Anything was a striking departure from the factory setting fathers we had grown accustomed to. The movie is built on two distinct dramatic axes: the familial relationship between James (Mahoney) and his daughter Diane (Ione Skye), and Diane’s romantic attachment to Lloyd (John Cusack). Shockingly enough, it’s the familial tie that is paid the most attention. When James is revealed to be an embezzler, it’s the breakdown of trust between him and Diane that is the film’s most quietly devastating moment – no Cusack in sight.

Movies that put the importance of a daughter-dad dynamic on equal footing with a romantic relationship are rare, but they are coming more into view. Previously, it seemed that the only relationship between a man and a woman Hollywood deemed worthy of telling were those of a sexual nature (perhaps that’s why many of the most acclaimed and meaningful depictions of fathers and daughters in the past 20 years have featured an uneasy incestual storyline to make the movie worthy of critical attention, as in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and A Bigger Splash). Other, more ordinary father-daughter stories have been passed over.

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But while sex sells, so too does resentment, anger, embarrassment, shame, platonic love, attachment and disconnect – and there are few other dynamics that offer up these feelings (and more) on a shinier silver platter than the one between a daughter and her dad.

Bo Burnham’s heart-wrenching 2018 movie Eighth Grade is a case in point. The relationship between single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) and his 12-year-old daughter Kayla (played with astonishing tenderness by Elsie Fisher) throws emotional gut punch after emotional gut punch. Echoing Lady Bird’s sentiment, the film is responsible for another of cinema's most devastating lines: “Do I make you sad?” Their onscreen relationship is one of the best depictions of parenting in the last decade.

Bo Burnham's ‘Eighth Grade’ was praised by critics and audiences for its tender portrayal of adolescence (Rex)

There is a small handful of other movies that have done their part too. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is less about time dilation than the love between Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Coop (Matthew McConaughey); when tasking Hans Zimmer with writing the movie’s score, Nolan did not share any details of the film’s epic sci-fi premise, only a short story about a dad who leaves his child to do an important job, which featured just two lines of dialogue: “I’ll come back.” “When?”

Coppola’s 2010 Somewhere remains one of the most tender father-daughter stories, set in the director’s favourite milieu of money, power and fame – calcified within the walls of Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont.

On the Rocks is a rarer beast still. Even less common than finding a nuanced dad-daughter movie is finding one that shows the relationship all grown up. Laura is on the cusp of 40 and surprise, surprise: “daddy issues” only get worse with age. And Felix is not merely possessive, he is a suave vortex of seersucker suits, cashmere scarves and intoxicating influence, pulling Laura into his orbit of frivolity and good times.

Felix (Bill Murray) dotes on his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) (A24)

We are constantly looking at the whites of Laura’s eyes. She rolls them at her father incessantly: at his outrageously inappropriate flirting with younger women; at his “theories and stories” on why monogamy is impossible for men; at his claims to be going deaf – but only to the sound of women’s voices.

The film is a lark, but it’s also a story of unprocessed emotions lying dormant between dad and daughter. And while their relationship is a very particular one (upper class, immensely privileged, largely healthy), it feels very, very real. Because despite appearances, On the Rocks is not a call-your-dad kind of film. It has all the makings of such: a jazzy soundtrack, sweet but generic pet names, Bill Murray. But where Lady Bird had me texting my mum in the cinema apologising for my every wrongdoing since she deigned to give birth to me, On the Rocks had me ignoring my dad’s calls for days – a very different but equally authentic response to a film about being a daughter.

It’s not perfect; Coppola’s latest venture doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say other than that dads can be s***y and daughters can be too. But while On the Rocks hasn’t quite cracked open the rib cage of father-daughter films, the movie has pried it open just a little wider – hopefully enough for others to make it through and get even closer to its heart.

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