Our Father (2021) is a thoughtful, unique film made by a director, Bradley Grant Smith, who is unafraid of stillness. It is worth seeing. It isn’t mind blowing – it travels down familiar paths and delivers a rather mild punch, but is original in the way it takes its time and puts an unfamiliar stamp on common territory. What makes it really noteworthy is the film’s downbeat tone. Watching it is like sitting through a power outage, not certain when the lights will come on again. On one level, it is about what happens when you deal with the unanswered questions in your life. On the other, it is about what happens when you find the answers.
Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torem) are sisters trying to solve the riddle of a missing uncle. They suspect he holds the answer to their father’s mysterious suicide, an event that has left a gray mist over the sisters’ lives. The two women couldn’t be more different – Beta is trying to be an adult, working a dull job and trying to strike out on her own. Zelda is a mess, foul-mouthed and irresponsible. The potential for comedy is here, but Smith only skirts the surface, unwilling to go for obvious laughs. It is as if he wants to create a new genre, one where potentially funny characters aren’t funny. What makes it work is the consistent effort of the performers to maintain Smith’s unusual tone.
The sisters set out on a road trip to track down their absentee relative, and it seems we will get a road movie with all of the usual pitfalls. While we get a strong share of eccentric characters and cheap hotels along the way, we also get the dust and fatigue and ennui that usually accompany a real road trip, the stuff they don’t usually reveal in road movies.
Both Buzan and Torem work well at keeping this quiet movie afloat. Torem has the flashier part; with Zelda, everything is smug or reactive. She talks a lot about penises, and what she would like to do with them. She’s the angry nerd girl we’ve all known, uncertain of where she belongs. Buzan has the less showy role as the more mature Beta, the sister who is taking this trip seriously. Both are equally affecting as young women faced with a long, dreary future of lousy jobs and vapid boyfriends. With the mystery surrounding their father and uncle, they don’t even have a solid family story to tell. They hardly even have each other as sisters, being so different and occasionally getting on each other’s nerves. Smith and his cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers get the most of the Chicago landscape, with lots of conversations in dark diners and whatnot, as Buzan and Torem muddle through, not quite part of the scenery, and not quite standing out. They are the people we hardly notice in our daily lives, yet they have drama and heartache like anyone else.
Smith appears to be going for a parallel between the empty Chicago backdrops and the drab lives of Beta and Zelda. When the Chicago turf doesn’t look tired and old, it seems like it might actually cave in. The houses are weathered and the basements gloomy. There are also several creepy family members who provide some comic relief, and Austin Pendleton, the veteran actor whose career began in the late sixties, is quite effective as Jerry, the long lost uncle. The weight of the past is in his every move and deep sigh. But Our Father is about the sisters and their attempts to sew up a loose end in their existence. They have questions about life. Is it better to find the answers? Is it better to keep searching?