A nuanced and occasionally moving drama about an estranged family, Bradley Grant Smith’s Our Father features an arc that perhaps sounds too common: siblings take a road trip and along the way grow, but here, ending on a note of uncertainty. It may take a little too long for the film to reach that conclusion, but the journey allows sisters Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torem) to develop in ways that are rich and subtle even if the story lacks narrative efficiency. Perhaps the leisurely-paced journey and the tonal missteps are reflective of the circumstances Beta and Allison find themselves in, employing stints of indie quirk to put up a kind of barrier for the siblings to shield themselves with.
The film opens as Beta sleeps in her car and heads into her final day at an office job she’s just quit to pursue grad school. Having broken up with her abusive boyfriend she’s temporarily down on her luck as she awaits a clean break. Just when she’s out, she is pulled back in with the news her estranged father has killed himself. En route to meet with a family that has resented the sisters, she picks up Allison who seems to be pertinently stuck in her own liminal state, living at a boarding house where she’s behind on rent.
The family reveals their father in fact had a brother whom no one knows named Jerry (Austin Pendleton) and the sisters set off to piece together the mystery and find their uncle, who has been named in the will. Unlike Luke Greenfield’s recent Half Brothers, their father hasn’t created a cute game for them but rather a series of dead-ends that eventually lead them not terribly far from their native Chicago. Along the way, Zelda’s manic, often self-destructive behavior takes hold after a fight with her older boyfriend who is ready to settle down and start a family.
Rather than a coherent whole, Our Father feels like a series of powerful moments that individually might have made for a collection of winning shorts, yet in this form, they are strung together in ways that aren’t wholly interesting. A short film often walks a delicate balance between telling its story on screen and leaving something in the margins for the audience to discover or speculate upon. Rather than a concise character study, Our Father presents a fully-formed road trip that starts to overstay its welcome, injecting comedy into often painful family situations. Beta is right to want to get away and right to be worried about Zelda who doesn’t share her ambition at this moment in her life. Of course, their father had just lost his life-long battle with manic depression and that has certainly manifests itself.
Our Father is ultimately a mixed bag of a film, with moving moments often punctuated with frustrating ones––but that’s what it’s like to spend time with someone you care about who is working through myriad issues outside of your control. Buzan and Torem enthusiastically embrace the chaos and uncertainty while the script continues to drop revelations within a neatly ordered and often overly quirky narrative where the destination is somewhat more interesting than the journey.
Our Father premiered at SXSW.