Our Father Brings a Sensitive and Quirky Story of Sisterhood to SXSW
It’s a tricky thing to try to build comedy out of subjects like pain, loss, loneliness and self-esteem issues. Perhaps the only way to make such a thing work is through memorable characters and strong performances. Our Father, a sardonically morose yet whimsically charming new film, written and directed by Bradley Grant Smith, rests on the shoulders of four women: sisters Beta and Zelda, and the actresses who play them, Baize Buzan and Allison Torem, respectively.
Our Father is the story of Beta and Zelda, sisters in their 20s who reunite when their estranged father commits suicide. Beta and Zelda must endure being near their creepy half-brothers and their father’s hateful wife, who has always at best treated them with passive-aggressive loathing because they were the result of a two- to three-year relationship he had during a separation from her. The girls never see or talk to their mother, and with their father leaving little behind, the one thing holding them together is the revelation that their dad had a brother he never told them about, their uncle Jerry, who vanished 30 years ago. The sisters set off to find him, determined to know this enigmatic figure who knew their father in a way they never did, and to connect with him.
“Brad had an idea for this script, and really knew that he wanted to write for me, and he really wanted to write for Allie,” Buzan says. Though Buzan and Torem had never met, they were both well-acquainted with Smith through the Chicago theatre scene. “Brad was genuinely interested in the female experience,” Torem says. “And was interested in highlighting two characters who were coping with daily life in light of certain expectations that were kind of hoisted onto them.”
Smith’s debut film as a writer-director is a remarkably sensitive piece centered around two strong but emotionally vulnerable female protagonists. Multiple critics and friends who have viewed who have seen the film have expressed surprise that such a movie was made by a man, which Torem—a writer and director herself—views as complementing the film’s honesty and to Smith as a collaborative artist.
“Brad was very humble about gathering our perspective on things, making sure that lines and scenes and the way things were done felt authentic,” Torem says. “And I think if you have that quality as a content creator, then you can definitely step outside your own experience much more successfully.”
For the role of Uncle Jerry—whose presence hangs over the film, though he is only featured in one scene—Smith had a specific actor in mind just as he did with the roles of the sisters. But where they were both colleagues and friends that Smith had acted with before, for this character, Smith was aiming for someone a bit harder to get on board: veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, who is known for his performances in classic films including The Muppet Movie and What’s Up, Doc?, and is something of legend as an actor and teacher in the Chicago and New York professional-theater communities. Buzan is no stranger to working with names, having appeared in Aaron Sorkin‘s To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Ed Harris, but she was still awestruck to be acting on screen, opposite Pendleton.
“He’s magic, as you know, onscreen,” Buzan says, “and he is incredibly magical in person as well … The job was almost done for me in a way because of the script: He was a character who kind of had this magic, someone that we were in search of the whole movie, and somebody that we had built up. And being with him, as Beta, was such an incredible kind of ‘pinch me’ moment … So the script really helped me not feel nervous because the circumstances of the story felt really similar to the way I was feeling, the reverence of being with this person and wanting to just soak up everything he was saying.”
But as important as Pendelton is to the film, it’s really about the relationship between Beta and Zelda, and the chemistry between Buzan and Torem is the greatest bit of magic in Our Father—one that both women said came naturally from the start.
“It was a real bond,” Buzan says, explaining that from the very first scene they shot together, there was a tenderness and a matching energy. “That scene is one of the most beautiful scenes, as far as the Beta-Zelda relationship goes, because they are both really excited, they both want the same thing, [and] they’re both there with this excitement and momentum about finding Jerry. And I think it’s a very sweet scene for the sisters, in that they’re touching and holding hands and being excited, and knowing that that was the beginning of our work together just amazes me how really natural it feels… We didn’t make any of this up; there’s a real spark, for sure.”
Buzan’s sentiment is echoed by Torem, who found the experience to be one she will not soon forget.
“I think of Baize like a sister to this day,” Torem says. “I just really love her.”
Our Father premiered at SXSW Online on March 16, but while the journey to the premiere is finally over, it may well be just the beginning for Buzan, Torem and Smith. They’re three rising talents poised to make a genuine breakthrough with this exciting, independent little gem. Their commitment and collaborative artistic relationship is fused together to create a sweet, hilarious and empowering film.
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