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The Independent Critic

Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn
Christy Hall
Rated R
101 Mins.
Sony Classics

 Movie Review: Daddio 
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If you've ever been stuck in a room with someone trying to decide between silence and sound, you should have some idea of what to expect from writer/director Christy Hall's uncomfortably compelling debut feature Daddio. 

On the surface, Daddio is a talker. It's a dialogue-heavy film, an unsurprising fact I suppose considering Hall's creative origins are rooted as a playwright. She also developed the 2020 television series I Am Not Okay With This. Daddio is a hard-sell for audiences, a small motion picture that takes place entirely within a yellow cab driven by Clark (Sean Penn). When a young woman we never know as anything but Girlie (Dakota Johnson) enters the cab at JFK headed for Manhattan, it's obvious we're in for something different. 

Something special, maybe. 

Daddio quickly becomes the kind of film where it's hard to imagine anyone but Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn playing these roles. It's easy to understand why both were drawn to this indie project with a first-time director. Hall has given them marvelous material to work with and they make the most of it. Both Johnson and Penn have expressive faces, often shot in close-up by veteran cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Lensing always in a film, of course, but it's something here as Papamichael manages to create a universe within the confines of a cab. 

Hall's dialogue here is precise, intentional yet nearly always feels completely natural. That said, it's really Johnson and Penn who sell this film with their eyes and their faces telling stories beyond Hall's dialogue.  

I have to confess that I was wrong about Johnson. I bought the stereotype. Ugh, I hate it when I do that. I looked at her early Fifty Shades work and I was dismissive. I was wrong and she's proven me wrong time and time and time again with bold cinematic choices and even bolder, braver performances. 

There's a connection here that happens almost instantaneously, though it expands and breathes over time. What should be a relatively quick trip to Manhattan is interrupted by a car accident. Clark, and let's be real that Penn looks about as much like a Clark as I do Brad Pitt, is gifted at small talk that means something. I would dare say that Girlie is used to small talk that only goes one place. 

You know what I mean. 

Yet, Hall never makes easy choices with her dialogue. Even when you occasionally think to yourself we're getting stereotypes, Hall peels back another layer and both Johnson and Penn are subtle, intuitive about letting us see that layer. 

The joy of Daddio is the dialogue and I'm not about to give that away. It's a film best experienced fresh and it's a film best experienced open to all the possibilities. The possibilities feel infinite here and there's seemingly worlds being exchanged between Clark and Girlie. This is a world of intentional engagement, almost inexplicably but not quite. It's fascinating to watch. It's fascinating to listen to. It's fascinating to watch the quiet, compelling chemistry between Penn and Johnson come to life. 

There is, of course, distraction. Girlie keeps up an exchange on her phone. We get the vibe and we at least think we understand what's unfolding though it adds an undeniable tension within the confines of this cab and within the dialogue that ping-pongs back and forth. 

This is my favorite Penn performance in quite some time. This isn't an award-worthy performance and that's a good thing. Penn isn't trying to hit anything out of the ballpark. Instead, he's living within Clark with a curiosity both internally and externally. He pays attention to everything and is quick to express what he sees. Yet, there's a naturalism here that feels like Penn stretching himself even after all these years as an actor. He does something here I'm not sure I've ever seen him do and it's honestly pretty mesmerizing to watch. When there's a subtle shift in the dialogue, it's fascinating to watch it play out between Penn and Johnson. 

We've seen films similar to Daddio before, though trust me when I say this one has enough going on that you'd be crazy to dismiss it. I'd watch it again for the actors alone, though it's also the kind of film where I want to revisit it just to bathe in Hall's immersive dialogue. In addition to Papamichael's expressive, emotionally resonant dialogue I was struck by the power of Dickon Hinchcliffe's equally expressive and melancholy original score. It's as every word of dialogue has a parallel note. 

Daddio is a bold, daring choice for a cinematic debut from Christy Hall. It announces her as a visionary filmmaker with an eye for dialogue, her actors, and the world in which everything that unfolds exists. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic