In 2008, the writer-director Azazel Jacobs made a small but vivid splash with “Momma’s Man,” a Sundance comedy about a troubled dweeb hiding out in the cocoon of his parents’ downtown Manhattan apartment. The parents were played by Jacobs’ own (the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife Flo), and the movie turned their overstuffed bohemian pack-rat museum of a loft into a tiny city of its own. “Momma’s Man” showed extraordinary promise, and in the 15 years since I’ve been waiting for Azazel Jacobs to make good on it. But while he has given us a compelling movie or two (I enjoyed “The Lovers,” an offbeat marital portrait starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts), they have all felt minor, and his last feature, “French Exit,” while it generated Oscar buzz for Michelle Pfeiffer, was equal parts charming and contrived.
Now, though, the angels have smiled. Jacobs has taken the leap I always wanted him to make and become a filmmaker of effortless and moving assurance. “His Three Daughters,” which premiered yesterday at the Toronto Film Festival, is another movie that takes place almost entirely in a New York City apartment (this one is in the Bronx), a set-up that seems, for some reason, to bring out the best in this director. The film is a finely observed, winningly unsentimental memory play about three adult sisters who have come together to take care of their father, who is dying of cancer and approaching his final days. It’s like “Cries and Whispers” recast as a fast-talking tale of sibling rivalry.
The father, Vinnie, is laying in his bedroom, hooked up to a heart monitor and a morphine drip, but we don’t see him, even as his presence looms. We just see the sisters (and a few peripheral characters, like a hospice worker who’s so solicitous he starts to annoy the heck out of them), as they sit around the ancient cozy nondescript apartment, which is located in a vast brick housing complex.
We expect the characters to veer into the past, diving into reminiscence and resentment and, of course, looking back at their dear (or maybe not so dear) old dad. We anticipate a movie from the well-made-play school of confined-setting filmmaking. But “His Three Daughters” is less predictable than that. A lot of the conversation spins around the practicalities the situation demands: finding a doctor to come over and sign a DNR (a do-not-resuscitate order), writing out the obituary on a legal pad, or taking shifts watching over their dad, so that they don’t miss the moment he passes on.
Katie (Carrie Coon), the oldest of the siblings, is a harried mother of three who lives in Brooklyn, and everything about her has a faintly hostile high-maintenance vibe. She’s a dyspeptic control freak who wants to get things done, and she registers a serious objection to the fact that Rachel (Natasha Lyonne), the next oldest, is smoking blunts in the apartment.
Rachel actually lives there. She’s a middle-aged stoner-slacker-loser with red-dyed hair and a husky smoker’s voice, and she’s got a bedroom in the rent-controlled flat. She’s been taking care of their father throughout his illness — but, in fact, she’s the only one who’s not his biological daughter. She was the child of his second wife, and the three grew up as stepsisters. Christina (Elizabeth Olsen), Katie’s biological sister, is the youngest and (comparatively) serene “perfect” one, who lives somewhere in the middle of the country with her husband and the daughter she’s devoted to.
The conversation is often brittle, but it’s snappy without feeling fake. Jacobs has thrillingly upped his game as a dialogue writer. And working with the cinematographer Sam Levy, he shoots the apartment from multiple layered angles, so that “His Three Daughters” always feels like a work of cinema. The exchanges hold and even rivet us, though the debates — should Rachel light up in the apartment or get high on the bench outside? (which she mostly does) — aren’t what “His Three Daughters” is really about. The movie keeps encouraging us to read between the lines.
Each of the women knows who she is and isn’t about to budge much. And there aren’t a lot of tears wasted over their dying dad. They love him, but what’s happening is what happens; in a way, they’ve already made their peace with it. So where’s the drama? It’s in what these three keep avoiding: that they may be leading separate lives, but they’re sisters who need each other in a primal way. Rachel, the stepsister, grew up feeling odd girl out, but her devotion to her father is unflagging. The prejudice that she’s a little “less” than his daughter is one that we, in the audience, may hold, but the movie quietly disarms it. The three performances work together like a piece of chamber music, but it’s Lyonne, as the wastrel who’s deceptively out-of-it, who does the most lyrical piece of acting.
In the end, Vinnie the dying dad, who has come to feel like a living ghost, makes an appearance after all. He’s played by Jay O. Sanders, and the sequence in question is mysterious and elemental. It touches things we’ve all felt about our parents, and that those who are leaving this world have all felt about the life that formed them. “His Three Daughters” is the work of a filmmaker who has finally come into his own. Azazel Jacobs was always gifted. Now he’s major.