22 Jul 2016

In my father's (Australian) den

2:39 pm on 22 July 2016

Antipodean angst and melancholy melodrama rule in the NZ International Film Festival’s Aussie drama The Daughter.

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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

The melodrama is a staple of antipodean cinema. Every few years another tale of family, secrets, the past and adolescence surfaces to show the melancholy and mayhem of our little corner of the world: Crush; Jindabyne; Rain; Lantana… Aesthetically, thematically and narratively, they are like cousins, digging up the same sadness and angst that we’re apparently all burying. And though it’s based on a play, Henrik Ibsen’s 18th Century Norwegian tragedy The Wild Duck, Aussie drama The Daughter had me thinking of another New Zealand film.

The Daughter is a doppelgänger of Brad McGann’s 2004 New Zealand feature In My Father’s Den, itself adapted from the novel by Maurice Gee. Plot-wise, it's pretty much the same: the return of a prodigal son; burgeoning womanhood, taking its precarious first steps only to be turned upside down by a corrupted past; Miranda Otto causing trouble. The Daughter, though, takes the soapiness up a notch.

Christian, an expat Aussie-American, reunites with his childhood best friend Oliver when home to attend his father’s wedding to a much younger woman. Yet within days of being reacquainted, he pieces together a connection between Oliver’s wife, the couple’s daughter Hedvig, and the family tragedy that caused his self-imposed exile.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out and about 20 minutes in I had pretty much clocked it. Yet every time the mystery is mentioned between characters, the scene cuts away; I wasn’t sure whether this was to keep the audience in the dark or because the secret was so obvious there was no need to waste screen time verbalising it.

Nevertheless, director Simon Stone has more in his deck of cards than just a twist, and when it seems The Daughter is building solely to a revelation so obvious you can pretty much guess it from the title, the film gives way to a brief but heart-wrenching final act. It’s then that The Daughter is revealed to be more than a mystery, but rather a cautionary tale, a tragedy, a tear jerker.

Unfortunately, it’s also riddled with fantastical cliché: a small town devastated by the loss of the timber mill; a dementia addled patriarch with a heart of gold; a beautiful-yet-tragic abandoned factory used by local youth as a very loaded playground; and of course, a manic-pixie-dream-girl teen, pink haired, precocious and over-idealised to the max.

Actually, over-idealisation is the name of the game here. Bunnies and kangaroos frolic in a makeshift rescue zoo. Every night features a flattering bonfire and deep conversation. And seeing attractive teens clamber over the nicely lit ruins of their town is about as original as any Skins episode.

Most of all, Oliver’s small, beautiful family, comprised of wife Natasha, daughter Hedvig, and father-in-law Walter, are so sweet, so content, so utterly perfect, that of course something is going to come along and disrupt their domestic bliss. And it does!

But having played coy with the secret for so long, the revelation feels a little bit underwhelming. Yeah it’s bad, but is it really that bad? The turmoil that ensues feels unbelievable; would such sweetness turn to cruelty in so little time? Isn’t this all a huge overreaction?

It probably wouldn’t and yes definitely are the answers, but in antipodean family drama, seemingly no problem is too small for some truly catastrophic fallout. The Daughter is no exception and, though it feels over the top, it’s effective as melodrama - which is to say, by the emotional crescendo, you do get a bit teary.

For the most part, The Daughter is nothing groundbreaking. Rather, it’s a classically formulaic family melodrama that makes bold but superficial claims to meaning by leaching off themes of economic disparity and repressed history.

In these respects, it’s little more than a contender for a spot in the University of Auckland FTVMS 101 Curriculum. However in its final moments, there’s also something pretty upsetting about The Daughter. Perhaps because it feels so contrived and predictable for much of the running time, the final, ambiguous moments are all the more distressing. Perhaps it's because the naturalistic performances feel so real and affecting that cry-babies like me can’t help but fall apart. Or maybe it’s for the same reason that these stories continue to be produced in this part of the world; because we keep looking for this sad story of families destroyed by the past.

Of course, it’s also telling that these stories typically centre on all white casts dealing with only very recent history. The small, innocent, economically ruined rural town of The Daughter is inhabited by only white residents. What happens to the characters is tragic, yet with the film’s issues of paternity, family and displacement, it’s hard not to think of certain moments in Australian history in which indigenous people have dealt with far worse.

The purpose of melodrama is to provide catharsis, for audiences to become immersed in an onscreen tragedy and let their repressed emotions rise to the surface to be purged. Yet films like The Daughter still seem to be hiding something.

The Daughter is currently screening at the NZ International Film Festival.