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TIFF 2023: His Three Daughters, North Star

There’s a belief that the best way to reveal the flaws of a bad movie is to make a better one. That kind of organically happened at TIFF this year with two extremely different films about a trio of sisters dealing with their relationships with each other and their father. One is as canned and disingenuous as anything I’ve seen this year; one is among the best dramas I’ve seen in a long time.

Let’s start there with Azazel Jacobs’ moving and powerful “His Three Daughters,” a film that deeply knows how to capture the hazy, surreal, unpredictable period for loved ones around the end of life as well as anything in years. Basically a three-hander, "His Three Daughters" feels somewhat like a play, but that allows Jacobs to really trust his actresses, who do some of the best work of their notable careers. This is a major accomplishment, a moving film that understands death's complexity and shifting nature. "His Three Daughters" is deceptively simple in how it conveys how loss doesn’t just leave a vacuum; it can forever alter the perceptions of the people who are left.

Jacobs, who also wrote the film, starts by very clearly defining his three leads. Katie (Carrie Coon) is a very Brooklyn mother and the eldest sibling who feels the need to take control as her father is entering the end stage of life. She’s constantly discussing plans, including ensuring a DNR gets signed soon. Conversely, Rachel (Natasha Lyonne, doing career-best work), who has been taking care of Dad for some time now and spends most of her time gambling on sports when she’s not getting high, seems to be one of those people who doesn’t exactly plan ahead, which allows Katie to openly judge her. Finally, there’s the sister from out of town, Christina (Elizabeth Olsen), who talks about her daughter constantly and does yoga in the living room.

At first, these three look like clichés, but Jacobs’ script gradually and brilliantly blurs those lines, revealing how these simple definitions are inadequate. We have a habit of putting loved ones in defined boxes—one of my favorite lines in a script full of them is when Katie says, “No one will let me be anyone else.” Is she the obsessively responsible one because that’s just who she is or because she’s forced to be by the way people see her? 

Without forced revelations and entirely through dialogue in a film that seldom leaves one apartment, these three sisters gently break out of the boxes into which they’ve been placed. It feels so true, vulnerable, and pure. It made me think not only of loved ones I’ve lost but those still in my life who I want to know better. I should call my sister.

While “His Three Daughters” hums with genuine characters, Kristin Scott Thomas“North Star” does the opposite of that. The excellent actress-turned-director has had a career filled with challenging roles, but she doesn’t give her talented ensemble here anything to work with, saddling her characters with obvious issues to be discussed and resolved before the credits roll. Most depressingly, it’s a film about three women that almost solely defines them by their partners and/or children. Everyone here, and the audience, deserve better.

Thomas plays Diana, a woman who has lost two husbands—and it should be noted that this script by Thomas and John Micklethwait is based on Thomas’ childhood, in which she lost two Navy pilot fathers, biological and then step, so it’s clearly a subject that she’s been considering her entire life. She’s getting married again to a kind man, which brings her daughters back to England for the ceremony. Katherine (Scarlett Johansson) is a Royal Navy officer with a son and a partner (Freida Pinto), with whom she’s in an undefined conflict at the beginning of the film. She’s also having animated flashbacks to when she was young, saying goodbye to a father who would disappear on a mission. The wedding has clearly sparked buried emotions.

Katherine is joined by Victoria (Sienna Miller), a semi-successful actress introduced giving a background exposition dump on a talk show, and their other sister Georgina (Emily Beecham). Victoria has a wealthy beau who is basically trying to buy her affection, but she’s drawn to a local she had a childhood crush on who has returned for the wedding. Georgina gets the lamest plot of all with a cheating husband that Victoria literally hires a private detective to bust on their wedding day in a subplot that could politely be called sitcom-ish.

If this all sounds clichéd and unbelievable, it is even more than you think. Every scene consists of people talking about their problems or emotions related to them, and none of it feels true. It’s a shame because the cast is obviously strong. Miller is generally underrated, and Beecham does as much as she can here with very little. Unlike Jacobs' work, "North Star" doesn’t trust its cast or audience. I’ve seen a few of those here this year.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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