Credit: Phedon Papamichael/Sony Pictures Classics
by Frank Falisi Featured Film Horizon Line

Daddio — Christy Hall

July 2, 2024

Late in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-winner, Harvey, the theme of the play is delivered by — who else? — a salty cab-driver. The aptly-named E.J. Lofgren starts his speech with characteristically regional bluster (“Listen, lady, I been drivin’ this route 15 years”) and details the changes he sees in people before and after their appointments at the mental hospital, appointments he drives them to. “Lady, after this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being… and you know what bastards they are,” Lofgren says. “I’ll be out in my cab.”

A cabbie-conscious preciousness about human interconnectivity suffuses Chase’s play, as it does Daddio, the feature debut from writer-director Christy Hall. Daddio is clearly indebted to its original conception as a theatrical piece: the two-hander bonds the recently arrived “Girlie” (Dakota Johnson, blonde) and her Yellow Cab ferryman Clark (Sean Penn, ratty) over a real-time conversation taking place between JFK International Airport and her Manhattan apartment. Scrupulous New Yorkers who realize that this ride would not usually fill the 101 minutes of the film will be heartened, and perhaps dismayed, to learn of a conveniently-placed spit of accident traffic at the film’s center, resulting in a standstill that applies only to the physical journey, not the emotional one responsible for bringing these disparate, amiably-tortured characters to a mutual understanding of the importance of human connection in a modernly alien world.

It’s easy to adopt a flippant tone with Daddio. As a script, it conceives of its own dramatic structure as a way to wax rhapsodic about the vitality of a certain post-smartphone humanism that connects us all more than it separates us. It looks to frankly digress frank subjects — expectations around gender roles, perceptions that plague personal histories, the negotiation of desires both sexual and romantic — but in seeking restraint, often lands in the terrain of underexplored. Despite some textual sexting with an offstage, older boyfriend, any investigation of “daddy stuff” is both out in the open (which is to say: the subject of dialogue) and largely unactivated (which is to say: even as Johnson and Penn play characters with obvious and sometimes unutterable chemistry, there is never the sense that this chemistry will lead anywhere further than to the disclosing of the film’s theme.) Conceived as a genuine chamber piece, Daddio finds itself the victim of creative shooting techniques, as its performers act in real-time while LED screens flash around them, forcing the photography into flat setups and the sterility of a crisp credit card commercial instead of a roving POV let loose in the streets of New York City.

It’s also easy to be generous with Daddio. Wayward screenwriters and faceless commentators (“the discourse”) like to bemoan the lack of “serious films for adults.” Daddio thankfully isn’t some theoretical answer to that theoretical bemoaning. Instead, it’s a material inheritor to a tradition of sturdy, semi-stodgy ‘Merican playwriting practiced by a strain of American playwrights in the late ’90 and early aughts. These works are frequently revived in community productions (David Auburn’s Proof), ubiquitously unrecalled except by actors who once revived them (Steven Dietz’s Fiction), and occasionally genuinely provoke (Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, on Broadway as recently as 2022.) In Daddio, a limited, lonely woman speaks some about what she believes. A limited, lonely man responds. They look at each other, sometimes only via the rearview mirror of a taxi cab. A dramatic revelation is clumsily disclosed, a thematic conclusion follows. The film welcomes its characters’ presences, but doesn’t proselytize based on their philosophies. If it feels flatly literal and unthinkingly bourgeois, it also seeks to take the question of everyday life as a deadly serious dramatic subject. What else might the work of art aspire to?

Hall has spoken about the material challenges facing original dramatic works, a frustration familiar to art-makers of all stripes. Daddio exists in its current form because Hall’s manager recommended the play be conceived as a screenplay, which eventually attracted the attention of Johnson’s TeaTime Pictures. It’s unlikely that Daddio would “work” better as a play, though one wonders if sitting in the same space as Girlie and Clark might nudge everyone — audience included — to hang a little closer on every word, to feel each glance’s heat and inquisition just a little keener. In order to maintain a critical ecology of artmaking, art must be made to exist. As a matter of numbers, much of it will be forgettable. Daddio, the story of two great unexceptional humans, doesn’t make a case for unexceptional art so much as it emblematizes it at the flat rate.