Reviews Short Narrative

Daughters (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Dia Taylor & Dinesh Babu

Writers: Dia Taylor, Dinesh Babu & Gerard MK

Cast: Cris Cochrane, Casey Long, Kat Smith

Running time: 10mins

Building a career as an independent filmmaker must be more daunting than ever in human history. With the constant stream of content being pumped out by every Tom, Dick and Harry with access to an iPhone and an internet connection, standing out from the crowd to attract the attentions of a paying producer takes on similar odds to being struck by lightning, or becoming the victim of a fatal shark attack – and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like those odds.

In this kind of oversaturated environment of banal abundance, it is easy to see what attracts so many Indy filmmakers to the twist ending. Suddenly flipping a seemingly standardised narrative on its head in the final moments of a story can be one of the most eye-catching and evocative techniques at a director’s disposal – and tap into that most precious and powerful of commodities in the independent scene: word of mouth.

Unfortunately, it is deceptively difficult to pull off. While suddenly changing the audience’s perception of the preceding events is simple enough, if there is not enough ground work put in building up a story’s characters to show why we should care when the world turns upside down, then the twist will lose almost all of its impact. At the same time, if the twist is insufficiently foreshadowed – something particularly tricky in the truncated run-time of a short film – it can leave the audience feeling duped, or worse, completely unwilling to suspend their disbelief.

For a successful example of how to pull it off, I would heartily recommend checking out Marie Vandelannoote’s Funeral when Indy Film Library’s annual awards showcase screens it. Over the course of 15 minutes, Vandelannoote meticulously details a three-dimensional family in the wake of a tragic event – before hitting viewers with a sudden twist that left critic Aftab Bose “with goosebumps,” lauding a superb film that manages to somehow be both “harrowing and heart-warming.”

By contrast, Daughters misses the mark by some distance. While it is by no means a disaster, this story shows just why it is so important to focus on the humanity of a character before deploying a surprise ending in the closing seconds. Jeremy (Cris Cochrane) is our leading man – I draw the line at labelling him a protagonist, because when we meet him, he has spent more than a decade in jail for the murder of his wife.

Cochrane is suitably weathered and world-weary, and wears an expression which speaks of a deep regret for his actions. With that being said, the dialogue he is handed suggests a startling lack of internal conflict – when asked why he did what he did, he simply growls “I had to…” as if he still believes that the wounding of his ego by his wife seeking satisfaction in another man’s bed is still legitimate grounds for him to have killed them both. This becomes increasingly grating as it seems nobody else around him is that bothered by that line of thought either – with former friends and neighbours warmly greeting him when he turns up in the neighbourhood.

As the plot progresses, Jeremy resolves to reconnect with his estranged daughter, who had to go into care following his imprisonment. While Cochrane again does a decent job of telling us of his inner agony through a series of mournful glances at an old photo, we don’t spend very much time at all establishing just what he misses. Beyond his photograph of his daughter, and a brief flashback to them playing together in the park (when he ‘playfully’ yanks her back by the hair to catch her – what a tender moment), there is no relationship for us to get invested in.

Thanks to this distant approach to what should be the central relationship, the drama between the two is significantly muted when he finally encounters a girl, he believes might be his daughter. Without wanting to spoil the ending outright, I will simply state that the way things play out do little to make us sympathise with Jeremy, whose past violence doesn’t really seem to carry any consequence for him regarding his daughter – whose mother he presumably murdered – or anyone connected to the stranger he also gunned down that fateful night.

The script is needlessly complicated – with too many differing scenes and locations used to tell what should be a simple narrative that puts its players at its centre. Possibly, this is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, with three people – Dia Taylor, Dinesh Babu and Gerard MK – working on it in different capacities. Without wanting to make assumptions, it seems like each of them may have been adding elements to something with a meagre amount of time and space, rather than looking to shave off non-essential elements.

What might have been a more effective approach – and more moving for the audience – would be if Jeremy were to turn up unannounced at the bar where his daughter serves drinks, and spend the evening in conversation with her, without her being aware of who he is. There would then be more room to address both sides of the relationship, while also building for a more satisfactory ending. Perhaps he could reveal himself to her surprise, only for her to unload all the pent-up anger and sadness she might have kept from him when he was still a ‘stranger,’ or perhaps he could keep his identity to himself – acknowledging that his daughter is better off without him in her life. These are not the only ways this story could pan out – and everyone watching will come up with there own alternative, but the problem in that case is that you want an audience to engage with your story as it is, not try to fix it.

Despite all this, there are still a number of positive developments on display here. Co-director Dia Taylor has submitted four films to Indy Film Library to date, and this is by far the most professional technically. The cinematography of Darby Maxwell in particular is excellent – and Taylor should do all she can to retain those services for future productions, because the sheen of the images here does a lot to elevate the final product. Meanwhile, Giovanna Mercury’s subtle soundtrack does a fine job of helping us understand what we should be feeling, without us feeling nagged into being happy or said – something which was a major bugbear of Blue in particular.

All in all, considering the big strides of her latest effort Sempre Piu, it could be easy for Taylor to see this as a little bit of a step backward. That would be completely inaccurate, however. This film is still a notable advance from These Few Hours or Blue – just for different reasons. While there are lessons to be learned, there are also signs of progress, making this is a consolidation – and an important one in her development as an artist.

Daughters prioritises a somewhat trivial plot twist over more substantial emotional development, and in future the filmmakers would do well to focus on getting the basics right, rather than chasing cheap thrills. While the latter might be good for a few shares on social media, the former is what makes for compelling storytelling that will attract long-term fans and funding.

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