Father-daughter relationships can be complicated, and it’s particularly interesting to see one brought to life on the big screen by people who are actually related. Director Emma Westenberg‘s new movie You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder, which just premiered at SXSW, finds Ewan McGregor and his extremely talented daughter, Clara McGregor, teaming for a poignant, sobering exploration of addiction, dependency, and role models, and whether or not their dynamic is the same both onscreen and off, there is something inherently compelling about watching two people who were formative in each other’s lives act opposite one another.
Driving across the American Southwest in an open-bed truck, the daughter asks her father to stop so she can pee by the side of the road, only to make a run for it. With nowhere to go, he catches up to her and they resume their uncomfortable and seemingly endless road trip. The daughter has recently overdosed and is accompanying her father — who she hasn’t really seen or known for years — for a few healthy nights away from destructive distractions. He understands her struggle thanks to his own past as an addict, which led him to do things that she can’t forgive him for, not that she wants to anyway.
Westenberg’s film doesn’t name its characters but more than makes up for that choice with the richness of personality embedded within both of them. The man and his daughter have a banter that indicates a distance that has grown between them following years of resentment on her part, but which reveals a warmth in the brief flashes of happiness that we see as they spend time together in the present. The father is goofy and energetic, and there are remnants of that young man in the more mature parent who just wants his daughter to remain the innocent child she used to be, though she has changed as well, no longer reliant on her father to be the safety net he felt like when she was a kid.
There is a rawness and vulnerability to these performances that makes them feel particularly lived in. Clara presents a steely front and doesn’t want to let her father in, though she softens whenever he does something that reminds her of the man she remembers from years earlier and whom she used to idealize. However, she can just as quickly snap back to that same standoffish person who’s still bitter about how he abandoned her.
Ewan wears his emotions and his desire to be loved by his daughter on his sleeve, which she uses to confront him about the hypocrisy she perceives in his transformation from a destructive former bad boy to a loving and concerned father. Their chemistry crackles, tapping into the heartbreak that can come from the difficulty of not being able to stop loving someone.
In her feature debut, Westenberg has a firm grasp on her story’s characters and presents a stirring scenario through which to follow them, and though there is an aimlessness to their journey, that allows time for the audience to truly get to know them. There are some jarring camera movements back and forth between the two of them in the car, almost as if it’s not clear who the focus should be on and which of them has more power in this unusual dynamic. Those close-ups of their faces, however, reveal a great depth as well as the haunting potency of this film, whose themes linger in the same way that a nostalgic memory has the power to provide comfort — or regret — so many years later.
You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.