A man serving an unknown sentence at a state correctional facility is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His doctor tells him he has four months to live. Presented with the option to finish his time under house arrest, he calls his estranged daughter and asks if he can live with her. The brief interaction triggers years of buried emotions and a long, awkward journey toward reconciliation.
So begins Catherine Hardwicke’s labored drama Prisoner’s Daughter, which swerves between competing aspirations and ends up fulfilling none of them. The film stars Kate Beckinsale and Brian Cox as a daughter and father whose relationship is marred by years of rejection and abandonment.
The Bottom Line
Not required viewing.
Max (Cox) was imprisoned many times over the course of his life, the most recent stint lasting 12 years. Maxine (Beckinsale) spent her adolescence caring for her mother, who, after her father went to jail, drank herself to death. Prisoner’s Daughter has all the makings of a poignant study of mangled family dynamics, but it abandons that angle to meet the demands of a less-than-satisfying action-thriller detour. Face-planting into so many clichéd turns, the 98-minute film feels like a marathon.
There’s promise in the first half, which composes a compassionate portrait of a single mother trying to make ends meet. Maxine shuttles between two jobs to support herself and her precocious son, Ezra (Christopher Convery). The increased cost of living — her son’s epilepsy medication is $170 alone — coupled with the fact that her ex-husband Tyler (Tyson Ritter) spends all of his money on drugs instead of child support, makes most days a hard-won battle. Despite her guarded nature, Maxine doesn’t succumb to complete pessimism: Her life might not look the way she imagined, but she’s proud of her efforts.
That’s why the phone call from Max (Cox), her father, rattles her so much. After years of little contact and no support, Maxine is thrown by his offer to make amends. She initially scoffs at his request, but after losing her day job as a server and taking another demoralizing trip to the pharmacy, she changes her mind. Maxine accepts her father’s proposal on some conditions: He must pay rent and stay out of her way.
Where Max gets the money to pay his daughter isn’t entirely clear, but the rules of the arrangement aren’t the point. Max’s arrival profoundly enlivens Maxine and her son’s daily life. The hard boundaries dissolve and the trio fall into an endearing routine — eating dinner together at the tiny dining room table, dusting off old photo albums and sharing stories about the past. Max takes Ezra under his wing, coaching the young boy in self-defense and helping him better understand his mother’s protective parenting style. As for Max and his daughter, the two repair their relationship slowly and with intention. Their conversations mark their progress — shallow, perfunctory chats soon become heavy excavations of the past.
Prisoner’s Daughter offers several worthwhile messages, including that it’s never too late to make amends, to start over or to apologize. But Bacci’s screenplay doesn’t seem interested in fleshing out the characters enough to achieve the intended emotional resonance. Max, Maxine and Ezra feel more like placeholders serving narrative twists than people wrestling with personal shortcomings and trying to heal old wounds. After a while, Max and Ezra start to seem one-note, especially when you realize that the latter’s inquisitiveness is just a clunky way of moving from one plot point to the next. And Maxine’s character develops in a confusing direction: How does a woman who starts off as an unassailable single mother end up resembling a damsel in distress, caught between her father and her ex-husband?
By the time the third act comes around, Prisoner’s Daughter starts to look and sound like a different movie — shifting from human drama to a somewhat high-stakes action flick. Maxine’s ex-husband Tyler, who stalks her in attempts to see his son, becomes a more sinister problem when he realizes Ezra’s opinions of him have changed. Max’s mentorship of Ezra threatens the failed musician, who crashes Ezra’s birthday party and makes a frightening scene. Here the film flirts with the tone of a thriller: Our senses are heightened with the realization that Tyler might try to do something dangerous or stupid.
He does both, and Hardwicke’s film careens, and briefly settles, into that genre. The director’s unobtrusive style is a boon here: The spareness works with the narrative turn to create a suspenseful third act. Still, it’s disappointing that by the end of Prisoner’s Daughter we’ve been through so much with the characters, while knowing so little about them.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Oakhurst Entertainment, Capstone Studios, Sam Okun Productions, Pasaca Entertainment
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Brian Cox, Ernie Hudson, Christopher Convery, Tyson Ritter
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Mark Bacci
Producers: Sam Okun, Marina Grasic, David Haring
Executive producers: Guy Moshe, Christian Mercuri, Ruzanna Kegeyan, Chris Rasmussen, Crystine Zhang, Robert Morgan, Jai Khanna, Mark Bacci, Jason Duan, Wen-Chia Chang, Justin Oberman, Catherine Hardwicke
Cinematographer: Noah Greenberg
Production designer: Pele Kudren
Costume designer: Marie France
Editors: Glen Scantlebury
Composer: Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
Casting director: Ferne Cassel
1 hour 38 minutes