His Three Daughters, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Natasha Lyonne, and Carrie Coon, is easily one of the best and most memorable films to screen at TIFF this year. The film focuses on three distinctly different sisters who must put their differences aside when their father’s health worsens significantly. While this premise may seem simple and tired, director and writer Azazel Jacobs (French Exit) methodically fuses every element of his craft to create a monumental film in its vivid depiction of grief and loss.
One could approach His Three Daughters assuming that it’s a 100-minute cry-fest. While at times it is, the movie is surprisingly hopeful, tense, energetic and quite funny thanks to Jacobs’ writing and the Oscar-worthy performances from the entire cast. Jacobs injects perfect moments of levity throughout, which is never contrived as these beats derive from the characters’ personalities and the dynamics of the relationships. It’s not a sad film, but a cathartic one. Viewers will undoubtedly connect with the film deeply if they’ve lost a loved one, but the film doesn’t require recent loss for the emotional beats to land.
When the film opens with a tight shot of Coon’s character, Katie, the eldest, against a blank wall as she rapidly lists how their father’s care will proceed, there’s an awkwardness between the three sisters that feels unnatural. Katie is a stern, demanding mother of three who lives in Brooklyn and speaks to people in a way that could make Einstein feel stupid. Her dialogue is jarring, but it represents how Katie views herself as the most responsible sibling and, therefore, the one in charge of her father’s care. Christina, Olsen’s character, is the free-spirited middle child who insists on finding the bright side, much to Katie’s dismay. The youngest of the three is Lyonne’s Rachel, whose mother married Katie and Christina’s father after their mother passed away. Rachel shares the apartment with their dying father and has been his primary caregiver until now.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Jacobs and his respective actresses spent a lot of time crafting these characters with extreme care and detail. What highlights this is the decades’ worth of history and tension between the three sisters that is immediately present and drives most of the story’s conflict. Their father, Vincent, is rarely seen, and his declining health is used as a backdrop to explore the tumultuous relationship that Katie, Christina, and Rachel share. A significant point of contention between Rachel and Katie is Rachel’s habit of smoking weed inside their father’s New York City apartment. Even though it’s her space, Rachel immediately caves to Katie’s request, and Christina tries to play mediator. While small, this one issue perfectly illustrates these relationships and provides insight into how each sister handles grief differently.
All three actresses are incredible, but Lyonne shines in a role quite different from her recent outing as a Columbo-like detective in Poker Face. Rachel hides her emotions from her sisters as she allows them to take charge of her father’s care in his final days, but even still, Lyonne masterfully brings attention to Rachel’s hidden pain every time she’s on screen. Her sisters are just too in their own worlds to notice.
Jacobs’ use of space is also well realized so that the drama never seems confined to the apartment setting, even though it all takes place inside of it. Furthermore, being able to focus on each sister individually in any given shot underscores how isolated they are in life and from each other.
Watching these three powerhouse performers work together on-screen is mesmerizing while Jacobs’s care for these characters and their grieving process is truly cathartic. It may sound obvious, but His Three Daughters proves that all you need to create something unforgettable is a grounded story that touches people and the remarkable talent who can help bring it to life.