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‘Because I’m His Daughter’: Fathers and Daughters in cinema

Lily Down traces depictions of father/daughter relationships in film, finding it an under-explored dynamic

My stepdad is my best friend. He made me fall in love with reading when I was six. He home-schooled me when I was ten. He has been there for me as long as I can remember. We talk about everything from relationships to politics, from food to our place in the world. I can tell him anything, and he will always listen.

When I describe my equally loving relationship with my mother, I have many cinematic and television parallels, from Mrs March to Lorelai Gilmore. But I can never find a father-daughter relationship that explains how my stepdad and I are just as close.

Sofia Coppola is tackling this rarely-explored relationship in On the Rocks, in which Laura and her father Felix try to find out if Laura’s husband is having an affair. The pair struggle seeing eye to eye; Felix is an ageing womaniser, while Laura is a young writer and mother. Their relationship is one that feels familiar in film and in life; a father and daughter who don’t really understand each other. But they are on the same team. Maybe this says something about family, who we don’t choose, but who back us up all the same, even if we don’t always get along.

In Your Name, a body-swap romance about Japanese teenagers Mitsuha and Taki, the fraught relationship between Mitsuha and her father, Mayor Miyamizu, is understated, but integral. Near the beginning, we see Mitsuha’s best friends sitting on a bench by the roadside vending machine, looking up the mountain to her house. “She’s on centre stage”, they say, with her father running for re-election. Like Laura and Felix, they have different worldviews; Mitsuha belongs more to her grandmother’s traditional Japan, while her father is caught up in small-town politics. Miyamizu is an absent father, having left his children with their grandmother after his wife’s death. But it is only through their bond that their town, Itomori, can be saved. When Taki tries to convince him of the danger, he won’t listen. Taki wonders, “if it were Mitsuha, would she have been able to convince him?” The answer comes later in the film, where she walks into her father’s office, a determined look in her eyes. He has to listen to his daughter, and believe her, and it is only through this that the people of Itomori survive.

In teen classic Clueless, Cher and her father have a charming relationship. Their bickering is a fun game. He’s impressed with her when she argues her way from a C+ to an A, saying that he “couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades”. While he has raised her to be determined, driven, and independent, he has also raised her in a bubble of privilege which she does not begin to poke her head out of until nearly the end of the film. But, as in On the Rocks, it is still her father she turns to when it comes to matters of the heart. This feels closer to me and my stepdad; we argue a lot, but at the core of our relationship, is love.

Love is what Life Itself is all about. Dylan, orphaned as a baby, is raised by her grandfather, Irwin. While Irwin is an old man, and my stepdad is in his mid-thirties, it is still this relationship I feel comes closest to ours. Irwin is protective, and loving, and you feel it in every scene. He wants to make Dylan happy in spite of all the losses she suffers. That’s what parents are meant to do; protect you from the world, and prepare you for it. Maybe we see this in On the Rocks, too. When Felix tells Laura that it’s “nature” for men to have affairs, he is trying to explain the world to her. But Irwin is not preparing Dylan for the pain of cheating husbands, he’s trying to give her hope in spite of grief. The film explores the profundity of this unconventional father-daughter relationship, and shows us that the powerful love between parent and child is not reserved for the nuclear family, but is broader than that, and more beautiful because of it.

In each of these films, I can see an aspect of my relationship with my stepdad. In On the Rocks, I see his weirdness, and the way he has my back. In Clueless, I see our playful bickering. In Your Name, I see the way he trusts me. In Life Itself, I see his determination to protect me, and to love me. These films explore a relationship which is often confusing. The relationships are imperfect, but this is what makes them true to life; rather than an idealised, Hallmark-movie version of father-daughter bonds, these films show messy, but real love.

Image via Pixaby

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