Making a movie with your own child is perilous enough at a time when the media, which is stuffed with them, has decided that “nepo babies” are the latest blight on the eco-system of filmmaking. It’s even more of a risk when your private life has been splashed all over the tabloids, and the facts of that controversy — man leaves wife and kids to start a new family with a younger woman — are a key part of that movie. But whether or not Ewan McGregor and his daughter Clara saw the film as a chance for family therapy, or whether they even thought about these things at all, Emma Westenberg’s affecting, slow-burn debut leaves all that kind of real-world baggage firmly at the door.
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It’s a shame that it follows so soon after Aftersun, but the truth is, You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder doesn’t share much DNA with Charlotte Wells’ indie hit. Wells’ film was about a young father than wants to cope but can’t, and even his wise-beyond-her-years little girl can see him struggling with pressures that he doesn’t yet have the life skills for. Westenberg’s film is the opposite, being the story of an older man who ran out on his responsibilities and must now take action to put right the damage that he’s done. In terms of subject matter, it’s gritty, dealing with issues of addiction and self-harm — it would be a very different film if made in his homeland, Scotland — but the treatment is surprisingly light and almost spectral. Like Eliza Hittman’s 2020 Sundance hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, this is a road movie that passes like a fever dream.
The film starts in res media, with an unnamed father (McGregor) driving his 20-year-daughter (McGregor Jnr.) from San Diego to New Mexico, ostensibly to introduce her to an artist friend who lives there. In short order, we learn that the girl is fresh out of the Trauma Unit, having flatlined after an overdose. The atmosphere in the pickup truck is charged, possibly because the father has only just reappeared in her life after a long absence. When the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the father loses sight of her, and, in a revealing little vignette, the girl slips off to the home of a nearby redneck where she asks for booze and steals opiates from his medicine cabinet.
The elephant in the room takes some time to appear, though it is first mentioned after a visit to the gas station, where the girl buys candy. The father points out that he has a sweet tooth too, to which she replies, “Is that all I got from you?” Things become clearer when the father pulls into a small town for an AA meeting, but the girl is resistant to his attempts to connect with her. And, deep down, the father knows she has every right to rebuff him: now a reformed alcoholic, he recalls all too clearly those painful, years, which we glimpse in faded flashbacks with a credibly de-aged McGregor.
The crunch comes when the girl takes a phone call from his new partner; even the phone is triggering to her, with the father’s sentimental pet name for his lover popping up on Caller ID and a picture of his young son (“The wee man”) on the lock screen. The woman lets the cat out of the bag; the girl’s father is not taking her for art lessons, she is being taken to rehab, and after processing this revelation the girl takes off with a random, sleazy stranger on a reckless mission to get high with him.
Fathers have pursued wayward daughters in many movies, notably Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), but, weirdly, Westenberg’s film plays more like a dysfunctional version of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), being the story of two estranged people who come to realize that, on a molecular level, they actually know each other all too well. The mood is something else entirely, embracing all the quirks and digressions that a long trip through deepest America might, including a hallucinatory encounter with a hooker after the girl is bitten by a spider. But just when things threaten to become too ethereal to matter, Westenberg throws everything into the last act, a genuinely creepy sequence that spells out the kind of fate that might awaits a young girl with a death wish.
Though she arguably looks a little too old for the role, Clara McGregor comes into her element here, and it’s to her real-life father’s credit that, as parents should, he takes a step back to give her the space to do it. It’s a lovely moment in a thoughtful but above all gracious film. It may seem slight at first sight but, underneath, it’s alive with nuance.
Title: You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Spotlight
Director: Emma Westenberg
Screenwriter: Ruby Caster
Cast: Clara McGregor, Ewan McGregor, Vera Bulder
Running time: 1 hr 42 min
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