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Our Father follows the lives of two estranged and completely opposite sisters, Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torrem). Living in modern-day Chicago, their lives take a dramatic turn as they are forced to reconnect after the unexpected death of their father. Our Father is an unusual film, not quite fitting neatly into any genre, but rather carving out its own story and blending tropes to form something of a dark comedy, thriller, and neo-noir.
Director: Bradley Grant Smith
Release date: March 17, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated
Beta and Zelda are both in a mess at the start of the film. Beta has broken up with her partner and, bizarrely, is living in her car. Her younger sister Zelda is living in a derelict boarding house, unemployed, and getting into damaging relationships. At 25, Beta is the older and smarter of the two: she’s secured a place at Yale to do a postgraduate degree, but it’s a detail that feels bolted on and she barely admits it to anyone, wishing to make a quiet exit. That is, until the news of their fathers’ death means she chooses to stay at home and resolve things with family.
The girls have a complicated relationship with their relatives. Their father had a second family, and it’s a difficult dynamic for them to navigate, especially now they’re left without any kind of parental guidance. The first 45 minutes of the film is concerned with them finding each other, and the second half follows them as they track down their uncle, a so-called religious fanatic who disappeared years ago. It felt as though this storyline would make up a much more significant part of the film, but there what feels like a very long preamble, in which we see the sisters get into difficult situations.
Although I found that Beta had redeeming qualities, I struggled to sympathise with Zelda’s character. When she’s not spending time with much older men, she’s lashing out at the world for alienating her. There was only one pertinent moment, after she was harassed, saying: “I feel like I’m trespassing by just being alive.” A lot of women, in light of recent events with the Sarah Everard case, can sympathise with this kind of thinking. It’s just unfortunate that she takes for granted all the care and attention that her sister gives her and that she can’t see the good in front of her. It feels as though she’s always looking for something better to give her life meaning and purpose when she already has a real connection with her sister.
If the film got off to a rocky start, throwing out jokes that don’t land, it doesn’t improve much in terms of any character development. Overall, I felt that many of the supporting characters were off — they weren’t fleshed out and it felt as though everyone the girls come into contact with, bar one or two people, are deliberately antagonistic towards them. The plot lacked unity and, rather than seamlessly creating a link between cause and effect, many of the moments were bolted together. For instance, the girls attend a meeting at their father’s old house – they argue with their half-brothers – they return home and Zelda remembers she’s swiped old letters with clues to their father’s brother.
There’s also an unusual plotline about something called M.O.O.S.E – the Moral Order Of Souls Eternal, which is a pseudo-Church of Scientology where their estranged uncle apparently spent a lot of time before he disappeared. If it intends to be funny, it is to begin with, but then it takes on a much more sinister tone as they encounter a brother of the order inside. That encounter, paired with Zelda’s self-harming tendencies, makes the film uncomfortable and dissolves any kind of comedy that there might have been up until then.
There is one good part of this film: in the final act, Beta finally reconnects with her long-lost uncle. He turns out to be a good man who cares about other people, but he has long since given up trying to help or resume anyone in the family. Instead, he passes his days as a piano store night security guard, an otherwise incognito existence that means he can stay low and mind his own business. He still maintains his faith, even though everyone around him is sceptical. Some of his reflections on religion and one’s individual space are novel, but ultimately it feels a bit gratuitous and lets down Beta, who has been looking for a real connection with her family members.
On the whole, while the premise seems intriguing and there is scope for interesting character studies, the result felt a little like something that needs work. As a directorial debut, Our Father disappointed, leaving a gap between expectations and reality.