Tribeca 2019: Come to Daddy
“A son visits his estranged father with the hopes of reconnecting” is a logline that could fit countless indie dramas and while it technically describes New Zealand director Ant Timpson’s feature directorial debut, it also does not remotely prepare you for the wild and unpredictable Come to Daddy. It’s a film that is best experienced knowing as little as possible and I’m going to do my best to avoid giving away its many surprises but if you want to have a pure experience you may want to stop reading now. (It won’t hurt my feelings, I swear.)
Norval (Elijah Wood) is “pretty big in the music business” and living with his mother after a rough couple years when he receives a letter from his father, who abandoned his family 30 years earlier, asking him to come see him at his remote house in the Canadian wilderness. Norval has no memories of his father and it’s clear as he knocks on the door that he’s terrified of this long coming reunion. His unease does not subside even for a moment as he enters this stranger’s house nor does the audience’s.
It’s instantly clear that something is off with this man and this house, a sense of strangeness that Norval at first chalks up to the awkwardness inherent to reuniting with a long lost parent. As they chat about their lives the father is not shy about expressing his distaste (or is it full on loathing) for his son’s life choices and eventually turns to outright mockery as Norval talks about his struggles with addiction and depression. That may sound grim, and, it is, but it’s grimness at its most fun.
Come to Daddy is skilfully tense and uncomfortable but it’s also genuinely hilarious in a wonderfully mean sense. Timpson shows remarkable control of tone as he builds tension beautifully and makes us laugh and cringe—often in the same moment. It’s genuinely hard to believe that this is his first feature as its craft is assured and Timpson’s voice is fully formed. Timpson based this film in part on his experience of losing his father—once again to say more of the specific personal experience would be to say too much—and the personal nature is felt even in the more outrageous moments of the film, of which there are many.
Wood does some of his best work here as Norval. He sells the full range of emotions one would expect from a son in both meeting a parent for the first time and all of the insane and violent things that make an intense arrival in the film’s second half. In the unhinged back half, Wood gives one of the greatest anxious performances I’ve seen in quite some time. McHattie gives another memorably and quietly terrifying turn here as the titular daddy, with just a stare the discomfort and menace cuts deep. And the always welcome Michael Smiley almost steals the damn thing in just a few scenes.
It is handsomely assembled across the board with impressively grimy set design by Zosia Mackenzie, gorgeous and moody photography from Daniel Katz, and the editing from Dan Kircher is precise and, in several spots, creative.
Come to Daddy is a bonafide crowd pleaser that achieves that status without handholding or undercutting the tone and themes. It is gross, violent, strange, deeply funny, and—in its truly unique way—ultimately touching. Ant Timpson has delivered a hell of a first feature and he is definitely one to watch. Hopefully this gets at least a somewhat significant theatrical run because this is the definition of an audience movie, especially when said audience has no idea what’s coming.