Out the gate, the cast alone for His Three Daughters demands notice: Carrie Coon, who deserved — but did not receive — an Oscar nomination for her performance as the combative twin sister of Gone Girl; Elizabeth Olsen, who has been awing critics since long before WandaVision with her turns in indie dramas like the cult-focused Martha Marcy May Marlene; and Natasha Lyonne, ’90s cool girl icon turned Emmy-nominated Orange Is the New Black star turned rumply but riveting detective in Poker Face.
Each not only boasts a heady screen presence, making their heroines instantly feel like the kind of women who know how to handle themselves, but also possesses a dynamic range that intrigues immediately. Where might their latest role fall on the scale of damage and determination? (Their best characters offer plenty of both.)
Such powerhouse talent packed into one movie is enough to satisfy on performance alone, especially when these compelling actors are pitted against one another in His Three Daughters, a ruthless, humane, and darkly funny story of grief and letting go. And yet this family drama, sharply written and directed by Azazel Jacobs (French Exit), cuts even deeper with clever crafting.
What’s His Three Daughters about?
In a lived-in but tidy two-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan, three estranged sisters are reluctantly reunited as their terminally ill father ebbs into his final days, which involve in-home hospice care. These sisters couldn’t be more different, both in attitude and in how they’re handling the impending death of the dad they shared in the apartment each has called home. (Sam Levy’s cinematography often keeps the walls and narrow doorways in frame, constantly reminding us just how close — and almost suffocating — these quarters are.)
Coon kicks things off as Katie, a ruthlessly rational Brooklyn mom who begins the film with a breathless yet steady monologue explaining how the sisters must wall back their emotions and grievances to focus on the task at hand: giving their dad the most peaceful end possible. “Things from the past don’t matter,” she says firmly. “Not right now.”
There’s a rich New York sense of neurotic humor in Katie’s opening speech, which is full of passion in its subtext but purposefully bled of throbbing emotion. This speech is not just a setup that she is a dam aching to break, but also a setup to the film’s first sophisticated joke. The punchline is the reaction shot from Lyonne, whose weary expression screams “fuck you” though her lips never move.
Rachel (Lyonne), a Lower East Side stoner who makes her money through sports betting, lives in this apartment with their father. Yet when her sisters invade, she sidesteps, letting them make demands, lay down rules, and dominate the conversation with the hospice workers who come daily to give care and advise. While Katie and youngest sister Christina (Olsen) take turns watching over their father in his room at the end of the hall, Rachel ducks into her own room to get high or hang out with her maybe-boyfriend Benji (Jovan Adepo).
Where Katie is brisk and business casual and Rachel is laden in New York sports gear and pot smoke with the husky yet relaxed voice to match, Christina has a bright smile, near-teary eyes, and the kind of flimsy casual wear that could cost $1 or hundreds. The baby of this group lives across the country, somewhere that reflects her sunny attitude and allows her to indulge in seeing her favorite jam bands, like The Grateful Dead.
Where Katie enters their dad’s room with a purpose (getting the DNR order sorted) and Rachel avoids it, Christina goes in shiny and with a song on her lips. Naturally, when tossed together, these forces collide in passive aggressive barbs, whispered resentments, caustic assumptions, and plenty of hurt feelings.
Coon, Lyonne, and Olsen are superb and nerve-racking in His Three Daughters.
Thanks in part to Coon’s rapid-fire monologue at the top, His Three Daughters feels like a stage play adapted to the screen. The claustrophobic setting of the apartment adds to this feel, trapping the characters in a fraught floor plan that means there’s no way to escape to the outside world without emotional encounters at their dad’s door, in the tiny kitchenette, or in the living/dining area that often becomes the stage for sister showdowns.
While Coon crisply sets the pace and the heady sense of theatricality through her punctuated stoicism, Lyonne brings misfit energy that infuses the film with New York authenticity. Whether shrugging off her sister’s bad attitude or joking around with the building’s security guard, she exudes that defiant individualism that defines the city. His Three Daughters offers pockets of private moments, in which each sister escapes the identity of herself among her sisters to give us a glimpse of who they are beyond these four walls. For Kate and Christina, this comes in the form of calls to their husbands and children. For Rachel, it’s a walk through her neighborhood, where her smile comes out of hibernation and her shit talk is understood as affection. It’s a role Lyonne was born to play.
Olsen’s role might have been the one over shadowed, as Christina is the gentlest of the three, given the least cutting dialogue. However, Olsen weaves a nuance into the youngest sibling, whose breeziness is a radiant but thin façade. “Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean I don’t have issues,” Christina asserts in a hard moment. And just like that, the bright baby sister is given depth that reaches into her love of jam bands, her choice to live across the country, and her unflappable warmth in the face of their father’s death.
There’s no one way to grieve, and Her Three Daughters puts several — all heart-wrenching and all-too-familiar — on display.
Her Three Daughters rejects treacle and tragedy porn in favor of giving death some dignity.
Perhaps one of the most compelling choices Jacobs makes (outside of casting), is keeping audiences out of the room of the daughters’ father, Vincent (Jay O. Sanders). The camera will never peek through the door or cross the threshold. The film is not so much about their father, but about how they see him, and what legacy he leaves behind in the “three crazy bitches” he raised — as Rachel puts it with a crooked grin.
By keeping us out of that room, Jacobs rejects making a spectacle of dying and gives the father and his daughters a private life outside the film. Still, we see plenty of who they are through how they’re coping. Katie needs a project to channel her nervous energy, even if that means targeting Rachel unjustly. Rachel is deep in avoidance, doing all she can to look away from the inevitable. Christina is endlessly seeking positivity, to the point of proving toxic to her siblings. Even Benji gets a showcase of grieving, delivering a speech about who Vincent was to him. It’s an oration so full of righteous rage and the pain of loss that it rattles even Kate and Christina from their poses of composure — and could make Adepo a dark horse Best Supporting Actor contender. (He’s sensational in this small but blistering role.)
I’ve written before about how grief is an ugly business. It’s cruel and unfair and can cause us to lash out cruelly and unfairly. Three Daughters neatly puts such chain reactions on display while avoiding making a ghoulish meal of its characters’ pain. The center of the film is grief, but its purpose it to show how three sisters were able to rediscover each other through this grim moment. It’s a motherfucker, but grief can teach us who we are, not just as individuals, but also to one another.
In a tightly written drama binding us to a humble home and an imminent death, Jacobs and his cast unfurl a powerful story of love and loss that is ultimately hopeful. While a third-act flight of fantasy may prove polarizing — arguably breaking from the rest of the film’s logic — for me, it deepened the sense of absence, giving audiences a grander understanding of who the eponymous heroines lose when they lose Vincent.
His Three Daughters is a simple but elegant drama that grapples with the ugliness of grief and comes out with as happy an ending as a shattering death might bring. It’s chaotic, charismatic, and ultimately cathartic. Don’t miss it.
His Three Daughters was reviewed out of its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.