Those with siblings know that, for better and worse, you can always count on them to, among many things, be there in the wake of tragedies — to point out your shortcomings, to be a shoulder to cry on, to remind you of your awkward childhood, to judge you for your life choices and, more often than not, to drive you up the wall. Perhaps that’s why, from a storytelling standpoint, sibling dynamics inherently carry the potential for some of the richest, tensest, and most complex narratives one could create. It’s why family drama films are so captivating: nobody knows you, and simultaneously misunderstands you, quite like family.
Making its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ His Three Daughters spins a familiar family drama premise — three estranged sisters (Carrie Coon, Natasha Lyonne, and Elizabeth Olsen) reunite to try and figure out what to do on their father’s deathbed — and offers a uniquely poignant, and at times darkly funny, portrait of the highs and lows of sisterhood. Coon plays Katie, the eldest and most stressed-out of the three; Lyonne is middle sister Rachel, always bearing the brunt of Katie’s frustration; and Olsen is Christina, the youngest sister who often finds herself caught in the middle of her siblings’ quarrels.
A Scene-Stealing Performance from Natasha Lyonne
When we first meet the three sisters in His Three Daughters, they are gathered around the dining table. They’re supposed to be discussing the next (and final) steps of their father’s palliative care, but neither can seem to get on the same page as the others: Katie is too focused on and upset about what hasn’t been done. Christina is trying not to burst into tears; she’s also miles away from her young daughter for the first time, and so misses her terribly. Rachel doesn’t quite know how to navigate the presence of her sisters, whom she hasn’t seen in ages, in her home.
From this opening scene alone, you immediately know this is a film that hinges on its actors’ performances, and Coon, Lyonne, and Olsen are all impeccably cast. Their chemistry engulfs each scene; they play so well on each other’s side-eyes, passive-aggressive comments, and weighted insults, that it really is like watching siblings fight. As Katie, Coon takes control, though to a bull-headed degree sometimes, like almost every eldest sibling does. It takes a while for her to become vulnerable with her sisters — and us, by extension — but Coon lends Katie such a disarming tenderness, you forgive her for her faults.
Olsen’s talent has never been a question, of course, but after playing the Scarlet Witch for years, it’s refreshing to see her return to her indie roots. A less capable actor playing the baby sister of His Three Daughters could have resulted in a stereotypical interpretation, but Olsen doesn’t let Christina wander into that territory. She’s the most expressive, yes, but Olsen brings a strength to the role that makes you think she may actually also be the most mature sister.
At the end of the day, however, Lyonne’s performance is the most memorable. As the snarky yet sensitive Rachel, she is perfection, leveraging her signature charm to bring moments of much-needed levity to the film, while also diving fearlessly into the darker corners of her character. Subdued and introspective one moment, then seamlessly fiery the next, it’s a scene-stealing, awards-worthy turn and, compounded with her work in Poker Face at the start of 2023, the perfect book-end performance for an incredible year.
Bringing Us Home
A bottle movie, His Three Daughters takes place solely in Rachel’s apartment, which she shares with their father. On a formal level, it’s a risky move, considering we — the sisters and the audience — are essentially just waiting for their father, who goes unseen for about 95% of the film, to die. What’s more, Jacobs prefers longer takes and extensive monologuing from his characters, which can sometimes make the film’s 101-minute runtime feel closer to two hours.
However, that’s arguably the point: like Katie, Rachel, and Christina, we sometimes can’t help but want to cross the finish line as quickly as possible, to return to our individual lives elsewhere — we’ve gathered to experience the inevitable end, after all, so why stave it off? — but, of course, the end means the death of a loved one here. Between Jacobs’ astute pen giving us characters we recognize (whether in ourselves or in our own families) and production designer Kendall Anderson’s eye, lending the apartment a lived-in quality, His Three Daughters ultimately succeeds in bringing us home. It may be under grim circumstances, but we at least have our sisters by our side.
TIFF 2023 runs from September 7 to September 17. For more information about His Three Daughters, including showtimes, visit the film’s page at the TIFF website.