Natasha Lyonne’s Best Acting of Her Life

There’s a special kind of thrill that comes when a perfect, yet somehow unexpected, combination of performers come together in a project. That’s the case in His Three Daughters, the new film from director Azazel Jacobs that just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, and Natasha Lyonne play the eponymous daughters in this often amusing, but emotionally wrenching story of sisters who have gathered in a New York City apartment where their dad is in a bedroom dying of cancer. Most of the movie is just these actresses, inside, hashing it out. It’s great.

His Three Daughters feels uniquely tailored to highlight what makes each of these women fantastic, and at the same time operates as what should be a turning point in their careers. For Coon, these days eating up the screen in corsets on HBO’s The Gilded Age, this is her first meaty (not Ghostbusters-related) film role since 2020’s underappreciated The Nest. Olsen hasn’t made a movie where she didn’t play the Avengers’ Wanda Maximoff since 2018, even though her turn as that character on Disney+’s WandaVision got her an Emmy nomination. And Lyonne has been triumphant on the small screen with Russian Doll and Poker Face, but this is arguably her best feature work since she was playing teenagers.

At first, it seems like their styles don’t exactly gel together—but that’s intentional. Jacobs opens the movie on a tight close up for Coon’s character Katie, ranting. It’s an almost theatrical monologue where she refuses to stop for anyone else to speak. Katie is the daughter who has arrived from Brooklyn, where she’s been driving her rebellious teenager crazy, to ostensibly lay down the law and get the house in order. (You can imagine what a terror she is on the Park Slope message boards.) The others, in her mind, should be following her lead.

Olsen’s Christina is also tightly-wound, but with an entirely different vibe. With near constant tears in her eyes, she masks her anxiety with a sweetness. She now lives in a different part of the country where she’s a mom herself; however, her daughter is a toddler whose biggest issue seems to be refusing to eat vegetables.

And then there’s Lyonne’s Rachel—immediately identifiable as a black sheep. She’s been living in their father’s apartment, and has mostly retreated from his care in these waning hours, spending time in her room placing bets on various sporting events and smoking pot, the latter of which drives Katie crazy. It’s a flavor of character that’s familiar to Lyonne—the wise-cracking stoner—but she quickly taps into an evasive sorrow that defines Rachel’s persona.

From the outset, it’s clear that Rachel doesn’t fit, and it’s not just her attitude. While Coon and Olsen carry themselves with a patrician air, Lyonne’s thick New York rasp clashes with their very way of speaking. Her bright red hair is a counter to their dirty blonde tresses. There’s a reason for this, which Jacobs reveals in bits and pieces, opting to let his audience piece out the details of these complicated relationships rather than over-explaining the grudges and spats.

His Three Daughters is about death and grief, certainly, but it’s not interested in being morose. It finds dark humor in the morbidity of knowing a loved one is about to die and being able to do little to precipitate that fact. Katie, Christina, and Rachel are visited regularly by a hospice worker ironically named Angel (Randy Ramos Jr.), who is both trying to manage all the questions being directed his way and offering up unhelpful platitudes. Most of the action revolves around the mundanity of sitting and waiting for this man to pass away, hopefully without pain—but that’s not a given.

In that awkward space, pettiness rules. Katie uses Christina as a sounding board to bitch about Rachel, but then will complain about how Christina serenades their father with Grateful Dead songs. (In a fun detail: Olsen plays a Deadhead, for whom the fandom is not about the drugs, just the music, even when John Mayer is playing with the band.) Olsen depicts Christina trying to stay zen even as she frays at the edges while doing yoga and cooing on the phone to her daughter. All the while, Rachel disengages, and you can see the hurt she is concealing in Lyonne’s every movement. Rachel doesn’t have the swagger that we’re used to seeing from Lyonne these days. She’s exhausted and defeated in a way that pulls at your heart.

Jacobs’ film offers up something of a slice of life portrait of this period in these women’s lives, but it’s not interested in hewing closely to reality. When they are on the phone it can seem at times like there is no one on the other end hearing their chattering: What they are saying to soothe themselves is more crucial. The director keeps the sisters apart in frames until they all converge, and he offers a stunning moment of magical realism as the film draws to a close.

His Three Daughters is what some people might call a small movie because of how contained it is. And yet it feels so big mainly because of the actresses at its center. They dig into this intelligent, knotty material with such verve you only wish more filmmakers would give them these opportunities all the time.

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