There’s something special about father-daughter movies. First, there aren’t enough of them, and second, there are some really good ones, from “Paper Moon” and “On Golden Pond” to recent films “Hearts Beat Loud” and “Leave No Trace.”
The latest entry from writer-director Annabelle Attanasio heads down a darker path as it explores a volatile relationship between a teenage girl (Camila Morrone) and her alcoholic father (James Badge Dale), a veteran who suffers from PTSD. Genuine performances and an atmosphere rife with tension make this one of the year’s best indie films.
Set in picturesque Anaconda, Mont., where high school senior Mickey Peck (Camila Morrone) is about to turn 18, the debut feature by writer-director Attanasio opens as the headstrong teenager is awakened by drops of water leaking from the roof of the battered mobile home she shares with her father, Hank (Dale), an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD.
Mickey’s mother, Vanessa, passed away years ago from cancer, which puts a burden on the mature teen as she’s forced to take care of the household duties, which include cooking, paying the bills, cleaning, and watching over her father whose life is engulfed by a continuous flood of alcohol and opioids. Gone are any hopes of being a normal teen enjoying the final few months of high school before being officially being thrust out into the world.
From the moment she awakes, Mickey’s day begins amped up to 11, established in the opening scene as Sheriff Avery (Stephen Little) makes a house call to inform her that Hank has once again been arrested after a night of heavy drinking.
The push-pull relationship between Mickey and Hank is one of devotion as the two hide their true emotions from each other. When Mickey brings up her mother, Hank either changes the subject or gets angry. She has aspirations about going away to college and is saving money for her education by working at the taxidermy shop, but she can’t talk to her father about that either because Hank’s plans for his daughter include her getting married, having babies and staying in Anaconda to take care of him.
Other central characters to the cast include Mickey’s boyfriend Aron (Ben Rosenfield), a spoiled brat who steals Hank’s medication and tries to get into Mickey’s pants every chance he gets.
Yes, he’s an idiot most of the time, but Attanasio tries to show us a different side of the teen once Mickey begins to resist his attempts at being charming.
British actor Calvin Demba plays Wyatt the hot new high school transplant who catches Mickey’s eye. Wyatt is ambitious and talented.
He’s an athlete and a classical musician who hopes to get into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Wyatt is a key figure in the film who brings hope and support to Mickey’s life. Without him in her life, she receives neither.
Like last year’s excellent “Leave No Trace” by Debra Granik, which explored a similar loving but volatile relationship between a daughter and her father, “Mickey and the Bear” draws you into the world of these characters, connecting with the audience so that we care about their lives.
Dale’s performance brings a complexity to Hank that draws out emotions of hate, empathy, and optimism. Dale is a really good actor who delivered a first-rate performance earlier this year in “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek.”
The film derives strength from Morrone’s superb performance as a teenager looking for a way out. Mickey feels obligated to her father who manipulates her feelings and plays the sympathy card whenever he feels she’s longing to escape. But Mickey is smart and fully aware of the game he’s playing. At some point, she’s going to have to decide to take responsibility for her own life and let Hank take responsibility for his.
Anaconda is a close-knit community of about 6,000 who helped Attanasio shape the characters in her film.
The former actor turned director spent a considerable amount of time speaking with local veterans about their experiences and dealing with PTSD. She also interviewed teenagers to help shape Mickey’s character. The research paid off as the film, rich in authenticity, is one of the best Indie films of the year.