TIFF 2023 Review: Azazel Jacobs’ “His Three Daughters” is an Irresistible Family Affair

“You will need each other. It’s good there’s three of you,” Angel (Rudy Galvan), a hospice worker, tells the sisters in “His Three Daughters,” seemingly knowing something that Katie (Carrie Coon), Christina (Elizabeth Olsen) and Rachel (Natasha Lyonne) don’t. They’ve gathered at the New York home of their father Vincent (Jay O. Sanders) for presumably what are his final days when cancer has left him hooked up to an EKG machine and getting him out of his bedroom is impossible. The specter of death has already changed things between the sisters when Rachel, who has been living with Vinny for years recedes back into her room once Christina shows up from Colorado, where she’s built a home with a baby daughter, and Katie has taken the train in from Brooklyn, far from happy to be there, but also burrowing in as the eldest expected to take charge.

You can’t be sure the three would speak to each other again if not for this particular occasion, not because of any strong resentment towards one another but because life has pulled them in different directions and despite being bonded by blood, they weren’t particularly close to begin with and in this straight up all-timer from Azazel Jacobs, the frayed family ties make for an extraordinarily intricate tapestry of what binds them. It’s a film that Jacobs would appear to have been working towards his whole career with his work often centered around stunted development in a world that is unrelenting, whether in “Momma’s Man” about a seemingly well-adjusted husband and father who moves back into his parents’ place for refuge or “The Lovers,” which saw a long-married couple rekindle their passion for one another when their affairs start being less fun, and in “His Three Daughters,” it’s clear simply from their speech patterns that Vinny’s three progeny have trouble relating to one another when they all are set to different speeds, in different places in their lives from one another and occupying a different space in their father’s heart.

It might be expected that Lyonne would play the more laid-back Rachel, who attempts to avoid conversation altogether and tucks into her room to gamble as her father surely would approve, while the fiercely confident Coon can rival the force of the nearby el train when she gets going, eager to engage when it gives her some feeling of control, but both give continually electrifying performances in “His Three Daughters” as grief takes hold of them in ways they can’t predict and the major revelation may be Olsen’s sneaky strong turn as the circumspect middle child Christina, the most traditionally domestic of the three but also the most apt to attend a Grateful Dead concert out of a desire for belonging. (There is a monologue that will make even the most hardened Deadhead cynic make them wish they caught a show.) As the trio giver powerhouse performances from a brilliant script, full of cleverly cutting remarks and even sharper tugs at the heartstrings, Jacobs and cinematographer Sam Levy show an equally great conscientiousness of the relationships in terms of the confines of Vincent’s apartment, with hallways and doors reflecting lines of communication powerfully signaling who’s left in or out.

Given its limited setting, it might sound like a knock that “His Three Daughters” would likely work as well on the stage as it does on screen, but that’s more of a tribute to its live-wire energy that you almost never see anywhere but the best of theater productions, and the gentle cinematic touches that are judiciously employed throughout make the drama transcendent, from a generally muted color palette that comes alive with the intensity of emotion at hand and a delicately deployed score by Rodrigo Amarante that really does deliver grace notes. The film may observe the sisters preparing for the worst, but as these final moments with a loved one reveal hopefully, some things live on forever and “His Three Daughters” is destined to exist as proof in itself of that.

“His Three Daughters” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th at the Scotiabank at 2:45 pm and September 17th at the Scotiabank at 5:30 pm.

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