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Father Figured

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Courtesy of TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Prisoner's Daughter (2022)

Catherine Hardwicke is probably the least appreciated director working today. She personally revolutionized cinema with the alienated, moody “Twilight” – say what you will about it, it tapped into a deep (admittedly embarrassing) vein of teenage-girl longing and made young-adult adaptions the biggest thing in cinema for a good decade. She also has a knack for offering future stars their first big leading roles, most notably Oscar Isaac in “Nativity Story.” However, she did not direct any of the increasingly silly “Twilight” sequels, on which fellow director Lexi Alexander once sent some famously sharp tweets about how this was the perfect example of Hollywood sexism. And it must be said that Ms. Hardwicke’s films since “Twilight,” either for teenagers or adults, have not been terribly successful. From that angle this makes “Prisoner’s Daughter,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, an important movie, because if it does not succeed at what it sets out to do, it will be the end of an important director’s career. It’s pleasing to say that it does – but only just.

Former showgirl Maxine (Kate Beckinsale) lives a difficult life in Las Vegas with her nerdy teenage son, Ezra (Christopher Convery). The relentless desert sunshine is quietly used as a metaphor for how she can’t catch a break by cinematographer Noah Greenberg. Though she has two crappy jobs – nacho waitress by day, strip club laundress by night – she’s still badly behind on the mortgage. Ezra’s father, Tyler (Tyson Ritter), is an unstable drug addict who is more than happy to punch Maxine’s boss (Mark Oliver Everett, better known as the lead singer from Eels, who also did the music) in the face during a public argument over their custody arrangement. Maxine loses her waitress job over Tyler’s behavior, while Ezra is simultaneously suspended from school after an encounter with some unpleasant bullies in which he doesn’t fight back. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Maxine gets a phone call from prison, where her father, Max (Brian Cox), has been for most of her life. An unpleasant medical diagnosis means he is immediately eligible for compassionate leave, with an ankle monitor, if she agrees to take him in. She can charge him rent and expenses, so says yes. She’s that desperate.

Mr. Cox plays expertly to “Succession”-themed type as the violent patriarch who devotes all his energies to controlling his children’s lives. But the screenplay by Mark Bacci leaves one plot hole unanswered – if Max is so quickly able to pull so many strings for Maxine’s benefit the moment he’s out of prison, why on earth did he not do any of this for her while he was behind bars? While the few scenes of him in prison quickly establish the respect he’s earned there from wardens and prisoners alike, Max is evidently still so dangerous he can immediately call in a variety of debts, most notably from Hank (Ernie Hudson, who really ought to get more plaudits for the quiet decency he’s shown over the course of his long career), whose boxing gym and financial success was kickstarted by him. Hank sells his watch to repay the loan at once, which Max notices, and apologizes for, but it’s clear that even after all this time Hank is still on his guard.

Maxine is even clearer in her loathing for Max and goes so over the top with it towards Ezra that of course the kid immediately goes against her. He’d thought Max was dead, has a knack for asking tactless questions (while being just mature enough to handle the direct answers), and loves both his parents so innocently that it’s actually dangerous. The rapport between Ms. Beckinsale and Mr. Convery is a delight – they both recognize the other’s limits; and while Ezra is clearly smarter than Maxine he doesn’t use that against her. Anyway he is still a kid; and he loves his mother, who always replies “I love you more” when he says so.

Even as Maxine does her utmost to keep Ezra away from Tyler, she’s still able to be positive about him with her kid. Of course if Max’s reputation was truly so fearsome, it ought to put even an erratic junkie on his most respectful behavior, so it’s disappointing that the movie’s third act relies entirely on Tyler losing his damn mind. But as the finale spools to its somewhat inevitable conclusion, it doesn’t rest entirely on cliché. The point of the movie is this: Maxine has spent her life hiding from her father’s violence, to the point she has entirely swallowed her own rage – there’s a remarkable display of tension early on, where Ms. Beckinsale’s skin is stretched so tight over her throat and collarbones that it looks physically painful – but by the end she’s learned about the power that comes from appropriate displays of anger. This is not a lesson women are supposed to learn; and it’s nearly smothered in the cliched lessons Max teaches Ezra about standing up for himself; but by the end, and thanks to her anger, Maxine is finally safe enough to relax a little. This is the kind of surprise that only a woman director can bring to a movie. Lesser talents, or male ones, would have had Maxine collapsed in teary gratitude or whimpering helplessly, but Ms. Hardwicke obviously knows something about how women carry their rage. This knowledge about how people build their own cages makes “Prisoner’s Daughter” worth seeing.

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