For better and for worse, the pandemic begat a certain micro-genre of intimate drama, one defined by its smallness – tight cast, single location, no extras, minimal costumes. His Three Daughters, the latest from the film-maker Azazel Jacobs, feels like a Covid movie. The action is confined to one Manhattan apartment, to which three sisters, played by Carrie Coon, Natasha Lyonne and Elizabeth Olsen, return to settle the affairs of their dying father (Jay O Sanders) and say goodbye. The sisters almost entirely pick at the film’s knot of grief, resentment, relief and tricky love; their relationships are, for reasons that trickle out over several days, fraught and frosty. The ensemble players include two hospice nurses, one sister’s hookup and a neighbor.
Not that this is a bad thing; death, especially of the slow and managed kind, is claustrophobic. Jacobs gamely captures the out-of-time emotional shearing and bizarre mundanity of palliative care, how the walls, memories, hours warp and metastasize around waiting for the inevitable. Characters regress, recollections diverge, old wounds fester. After 101 minutes, you will know the floor plan to this apartment, its weathered furniture and dens of privacy, like a familiar cocoon.
But it’s a long and uneven journey to that point. There seems to be an effort, on the level of performances and direction, to thoroughly differentiate the sisters – Katie (Coon) as the tightly wound, rigid planner, Rachel (Lyonne) as her slacker, black sheep foil, younger Christina (Olsen) as the cheery defuser. But the effect is so pronounced as to make the three seem like they’re acting in different movies. Coon’s Katie speaks in a patter of anxieties, condemnations and logistics with the manner of the stage. Olsen, in her first non-Marvel film role since 2018, seems pitched for quirky dramedy, her bright features reaching for the far edges of wide-eyed concern or forced zen. Maybe it’s my Poker Face bias, but Lyonne’s signature disarming, earthy frankness feels apt for a tight, colorful TV show; of the three, it’s her Rachel, a pothead who cared for their father and makes money on sports gambling, who feels fully formed.
As the sisters’ loose geography and timelines – Christina lives somewhere across the country, Katie somewhere across the city – begin to cohere, so too do the performances and the hefty distrust between Katie and Rachel. Azazel smartly wrings dramatic revelations out of the small work of death – Do Not Resuscitate orders, care schedules, the obituary, the family politics of making and sharing food. There’s a brisk enough pace to the build-ups and blow outs, when unsaid accusations and simmering resentments spill into dialogue, though it leans a little too heavily into the domineering/aloof dynamic between Katie and Rachel, a cycle of bitterness, attack and withdrawal that plays out one too many times to get the point across.
By the film’s second half, Olsen’s broad portrayal of a frazzled, over-compensating young mother narrows into something searing and potent, especially once her lacquered cheeriness cracks. But given the judgment Rachel faces from her sisters, particularly Katie, it becomes difficult to root for anyone in this tangle of grief and pride but Lyonne. And given His Three Daughters’ fidelity to the cold facts of dying, the final minutes makes a bold and uneasy logic leap that pulls on the heartstrings but feels too neat for a drama this lived in, for sibling bonds this spiky.
Still, there’s something winsome to the sisters’ hard-won acceptance, even if possibly temporary, even if contained to a single apartment. Azazel’s rendering of their temporary home lingers; the morning light on an old photo, an indented couch, dishes in the sink – these are the marks of living that, no matter how fraught the relationship, you miss when they’re gone.
His Three Daughters is screening at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced