The first time I watched Toy Story 2 with my dad, he rose from the couch abruptly to get a glass of water. Jessie, the cowgirl doll, was singing “When She Loved Me,” the bittersweet backstory of her previous owner’s love and the memories they shared, ending with the child outgrowing her and ultimately giving Jessie away to charity in a cardboard box. As I fumbled to pause it so my dad wouldn’t miss anything, I heard a quiet sob from the kitchen. Silence. Then another. I set the remote down; not fully understanding, I let the film keep playing.
While the past few years have helped bring complex and dizzying portraits of women and mothers to the forefront, I am simultaneously and inevitably drawn to the softness and generosity of onscreen father-daughter relationships in 2018. Whether in a tensely-plotted thriller like Searching or A Quiet Place, or a tender, thoughtful character study like Eighth Grade or Leave No Trace, the bond between father and daughter not only helps drive plot, but allows viewers to understand the characters and the ways they acknowledge one another more richly. After all, aren’t love, and paying attention the same thing?
When a single dad’s (John Cho) teenage daughter (Michelle La) disappears in Searching, his entire world crumbles. Through a brief but compelling exposition, the audience becomes immediately intimate with the gravity of this tenuous relationship. A father’s love is not only a narrative catalyst, but the only way to ultimately ensure his daughter’s safety. The same rigorous protection radiates from A Quiet Place, where a father (John Krasinski) must make a series of sacrifices so his daughter (Millicent Simmonds) and son (Noah Jupe) can survive. However, his daughter harbors intense guilt about the death of her younger sibling — an unwarranted, yet inescapable, feeling. Desperately, she needs the forgiveness and love of her father, and she needs to hear it from him.
While portrayals of a father as a protector can frequently feel dated, these films allow small but significant snapshots of each relationship that help counteract this stereotype by foregrounding sensitivity: the care with which Cho’s character chronicles his daughter’s life in his computer, the urgent American Sign Language Krasinski’s father figure uses to communicate to his daughter that he loves her and always has.
My favorite scene of the past year came from Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, in which Elsie Fisher’s earnest and awkward Kayla navigates the excruciating realities of adolescence. After creating a time capsule of the past school year, she sits down to watch it burn in a bonfire beside her dad, played by a pitch-perfect Josh Hamilton. What’s inside? “Nothing really, just sorta my hopes and dreams,” she quips. After a long silence, Fisher’s voice cracks through her most telling and revealing dialogue of the film so far: if, one day, she has a daughter of her own that turned out like her, being her mom would make her really sad. You can all but hear her heart breaking as she asks whether she makes him sad. Her father’s reaction is one of sheer bewilderment — of course she doesn’t make him sad; she makes him happy, doesn’t she see what he sees? Not at first. But Hamilton’s performance here glows with the unconditional love that can only come from a parent, specifically a parent of this caliber, who is a lens through which light can always shine.
Perhaps the most symbiotic duo of the year arrives in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, in a lush green nature reserve with a man (Ben Foster) and his young daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) living closed off from the outside world. After being discovered by local authorities, the pair must navigate the pains and perils of society, of school, of other people — and of acknowledging each other within those spaces. Here, we are exposed to the deep chasms that can exist even between two people who are closer to one another than anyone else. Cinematographer Michael McDonough’s camera rarely intrudes, placing us across the room in a wide shot as they embrace after a period of separation; this is a love we can be a part of only at a distance.
Supportive father figures, of course, existed long before 2018, and will exist long after. Moviegoers need look no further than classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Sixteen Candles, Taken and many more to see prominent and affectionate father-daughter relationships unfold. What seems to differentiate contemporary portrayals is the nuance with which these relationships are revealed, the space both characters are given to understand each other, fulfilling and forgiving one another at their own pace.
My father taught himself to play the piano; it’s why I learned to play, too. He could pick out an incorrectly-played chord from any room in the house. From the upstairs bedroom: “B flat? Try that one again” (he still can). As the years pass, though, the most well-worn songbook has always been the sheet music to Toy Story 2 –— from that one song, from both of us, the bittersweet F major sharps and naturals taking root and growing into a living thing in our small family room, something we no longer need to read to play. Today, I hear it the way my father must have that first time, resonating with him a little differently: as a symphony of the endless goodbyes between a parent and child, our evensong.
Sheet music often comes with what are called expression or mood markings, short words or phrases to indicate how a song should be played. “When She Loved Me” gives the pianist these only: “Tenderly, very freely.” So, too, do this year’s leading fathers love their daughters, the one thing they cannot bear to lose — openly, gently, fully.