SXSW 2021 Review: A Family Tree Branches Out Into the Unknown in Bradley Grant Smith’s Whipsmart “Our Father”

The family at the heart of “Our Father” has become exceptionally good at making an exit and leaving no one being the wiser, which is what’s making it so frustrating for Beta (Baize Buzan) as she tries to make her great escape. Happy to tell her co-workers she’s moving onto grad school in Connecticut, she has evaded the difficult conversation with her boyfriend Grant by sleeping in her car rather than the apartment they share in Chicago and keeps putting off plans to tell her sister Zelda (Allison Torem) and her father Bobby at dinner, resulting in Bobby saying goodbye before she does, with his longtime partner Jane (Ann Whitney) having to break the news that he’s taken his life. (It doesn’t take much time in the company of her or her boorish middle-aged sons to understand why.) Naturally, Beta has to catch Zelda sneaking into her own apartment to be able to tell her what happened when her younger sister has avoided paying rent for two months, but like all the connections in Bradley Grant Smith‘s exquisite comedy, it’ll happen if it’s meant to be.

“Our Father” comes by way of much of the same creative team behind “Saint Frances,” which took SXSW by storm and if there’s any justice, history is bound to repeat itself for this wily directorial debut from Smith. Wickedly funny when it wants to be and keenly observant, the film picks up at a time when neither Beta or Zelda particularly broken up over their father’s death, but the occasion brings the two closer than they have been in years when they’re obliged to take a look at his belongings. They don’t have time to linger when Beta has to leave Chicago by the end of the weekend, and besides Jane’s sons, all significantly older than Bobby’s daughters and fitting into a shared Tesla as if it’s a clown car, are eager to divvy up their dad’s things. But when the other side of the family lets slip that Bobby had a brother (Austin Pendleton) that Beta and Zelda never knew about, the odds get longer that Beta will be able to leave town on her own terms.

Although Bobby isn’t ever strongly defined as a character in “Our Father,” he definitely has a presence as Smith looks at how his tenuous sense of commitment filtered down to his children, influenced perhaps by his brother who followed his bliss towards the church and essentially cut himself off from his clan. Family is where you find it rather than where it is forced as Beta and Zelda could be seen as stronger as individuals for not having much in terms of blood relations to lean on, but it’s led to trust issues with anyone else including each other. This makes every time they’re comfortable enough to be vulnerable in front of someone a real event, underscored by the casual beauty of the score that Smith composed and the largely understated cinematography of Nate Hurtsellers that constantly sneaks up on you in its vibrancy, and while there isn’t an emotionally inauthentic moment in “Our Father,” the writer/director impressively knows exactly when to break with reality either to land a comic or dramatic punchline and has in Buzan and Torem, a pair of leads who gracefully make it all work. In a film where characters struggle mightily to create bonds, the effortlessness with which Smith and crew do is even more well worth cherishing.

“Our Father” will screen at SXSW through March 20th.