At first glance, it would be easy to assume that Christy Hall’s debut feature, Daddio, was born of the COVID-era. It’s a two-hander of a film, the camera never straying far from the inside of a New York City taxicab driven by Clark (Sean Penn). On his final ride of the night, he picks up a woman from JFK Airport. This woman, referred to as Girlie in the credits, is played by Dakota Johnson, whose production company is also behind the film. Despite the fact that Daddio is a perfect fit for COVID protocols, it began its life as a play in 2017. According to Hall, Daddio is a filmic love letter to New York City, the dying profession of cab driver, and humanity’s ability to communicate with people who don’t always agree with them. That last one is a skill that hasn’t exactly been present in recent years, but Daddio is supposed to be an example we can look to and learn from: two people, with seemingly nothing in common, talking for an hour and a half.
Even without Hall’s in-person introduction, it’s clear that Daddio was meant to be an ode to a dying industry. Clark begins the interaction in the cab by talking about how no one uses cash and stupid apps are going to be the downfall of humanity. People don’t tip anymore, money means less when it’s a credit card, and he hates what has become of this job he loves. This isn’t the first or last tirade Clark will have in the movie. He has long-winded opinions on men, women, sex, his ex-wife, and relationships. They’re gruff in a sort of pseudo-New Yorker way, and Penn lays it on a little thick. He’s completely condescending to Johnson’s Girlie, especially when they talk about her relationship with a married man.
As a film that’s supposed to be about having hard conversations about murky issues with people who hold different opinions, no one in Daddio really participates in a conversation. In monologue after monologue, the characters come across more as talking at each other rather than to each other. Clark goes on and on about how Girlie’s role as the other woman isn’t to love her married guy, known only as L, even though it’s what women are obsessed with. Girlie’s role is to sleep with L and provide him with an escape from his wife and children. Instead of challenging him on those ideas or pushing back even a little to give her opinion about women or her situation, Girlie simply tells Clark she really can’t stand him in that moment. Daddio is afraid to have the difficult conversations it promises. The script throws out contentious, debatable topics, then lets them fizzle out.
Even so, the premise of Daddio remains compelling. Two strangers with vastly different life experiences stuck together because of circumstance. It’s the same premise behind the magic of The Before Trilogy, but without the romantic tension, even though there are moments in the beginning of Daddio that hint otherwise. Two people talking don’t automatically create a conversation. In The Before Trilogy, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are speaking to one another, actively disagreeing or agreeing, engaging with one another. That’s how Richard Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke made a trilogy of films that has endured for decades. Girlie and Clark are only separated by a sliding glass window in the cab, but it feels like they’re light-years apart from each other.
Daddio was shot in a studio, but to create the illusion that the duo were actually in a cab driving from JFK to Midtown Manhattan, the team surrounded the cab with high-quality LED screens. They captured the footage in a car with nine cameras attached to it. It creates a profoundly seamless feeling and saved quite the production headache in terms of shooting on the actual roads. Because of this set-up, the team was also able to shoot the film linearly, an experience actors rarely get. This also speaks to the film’s original life as a play. It feels a little odd though that Daddio is supposed to be a love letter to New York when we see so little of it. That cab could be anywhere, in any city in the world. The experience of riding home in a cab (or app-based rideshare) from the airport is familiar to many people, and the character of Clark is not so specific that he has to be a New Yorker. I’ve taken rideshares in LA, NY, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Nashville, Toronto, Paris, and plenty of other cities, and in every city, I’ve had a Clark. Which is to say that maybe Daddio becomes more interesting without a sense of place because it speaks to the fact that humans are the same everywhere.
Johnson is Daddio’s shining beacon in the night. As previously argued, Johnson is more than the Fifty Shades chapters in her body of work. In the backseat of the cab, she’s having an entirely different conversation on the phone with her married lover. The emotions of that texting conversation have to come through her facial expressions rather than her written replies. The words she types are laced with the emotional labor of what the camera picks up: her nail-biting, lip twitches, and eye movements.
Playing at TIFF2023, Daddio is a huge swing for a first-time director, who shows an immense amount of confidence by not hiding behind anything. Daddio has no frills, tricks, or gimmicks. It is exactly as promised: two people in a cab talking for an hour and a half. The film has moments that glimmer like gold, but Daddio needed some more polishing before it could truly glow.