Credit: Nate Hurtsellers
by Ayeen Forootan Film

Our Father | Bradley Grant Smith

March 18, 2021

At first glance, the plotting of Bradley Grant Smith’s directorial debut feature Our Father would seem to offer plenty of promise. Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torem) are distant sisters from entirely different worlds — one an uptight, white-collar girl and the other a gloomy, carefree Bohemian “psycho” — who, after their father’s suicide, embark on a journey to find their strange, “religious nut” uncle who has been vanished for thirty years. It’s a narrative setup that immediately intrigues, not least of all because it’s tough to recall that last film that featured two young sisters sharing a quest to find a lost male family member. Unfortunately, this dramedic odyssey runs out of fuel far too soon, petering out all while still going in circles. Much of this can be blamed on the lowkey mumblecore leanings that Smith opts for, everything tending heavily toward the brand of naturalism that is all too familiar in works of this ilk, and which too easily slips into flavorless tedium. Likewise aesthetically underwhelming, almost everything here is shot in dim lighting, presumably an attempt to create a minimalist, relaxed vibe, while the film’s narrative also fails to build any layers into its single-thread story or develop protagonists’ who meaningfully develop or even come into much conflict. And while the acting duo of Buzan and Torem does achieve a welcome chemistry, specifically during the film’s more intimate sequences, they don’t fare as well during scenes of sisterly confrontation — and that’s even disregarding just how uninteresting these two characters are. Elsewhere, it’s unclear why Smith insists on frequently digressing into unnecessary and imposed subplots only for the sake of a shallow critique of sexism, all of which is facilitated by some very cartoonish male morons. 

More beneficial to the film is the fact that Smith is also a musician, and he executes a steady rhythm, carefully handling material that is often disjointed, inconsistent, and unconvincing. Perhaps predictably, he also frequently demonstrates a facility for integrating music into the film’s intervals, effectively punctuating moments and, in that way, managing to at least engage viewers through it all. Ultimately, as the film concludes, a couple twists actually help the narrative from nose-diving into outright predictability — although, it’s not entirely clear why Smith suddenly decides to render a scene with Beta and her uncle Jerry (Austin Pendleton) at a piano in abstract blue lighting, even if the theological and metaphysical aspect of the scene is obvious, and it again exhibits how impulsive and uneven his directorial instincts can be. But eschewing patness one final time, just as it seems that all of this will have amounted to nothing more than a futile journey where the girls will ultimately embrace their everlasting sisterly love for one another; Our Father settles things on something of a bleaker note, revealing that Beta may not find exactly what she’s been looking for — or at least, not entirely in the way she hoped. In other words, the lesson learned is that it’s crucial for one to persevere in life, despite any turn of events. In this sense, Smith should take note, as there’s enough here to suggest that he may well have a long, successful career in front of him. But this time out, it has to be said, he sets the bar too low and doesn’t do enough to upend the film’s considerable convention.

Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.