Father by Law

By Maria De Sanctis | Drama
A father tries to reconnect with his daughter on her wedding day.

As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.

Liz is getting married to Eddie, and the ceremony is a lovely, intimate family affair — that is, until Liz’s estranged father Dale arrives late, interrupting the nuptials and hoping to reconnect with his daughter.

More specifically, Dale wants the father-daughter dance with Liz at the reception, despite the fact that he’s been a less than ideal paternal presence in Liz’s life lately. But Dale finds it’s not as easy as he thought to get back into his daughter’s good graces, as he begins to reckon with the choices he’s made in the past.

Writer-director Maria De Sanctis, along with writer Geoff McFarlane, have crafted an astutely observed family drama alive to the tremendous pull that love and loyalty hold in a family — and how deep-seated hurts and resentments continue to reverberate when they’re not adequately addressed.

Many family dramas rest on a foundation of excellent writing, and “Father by Law” is no different, carefully charting Dale’s efforts to be part of his family. Its script is especially skilled at juggling the shifting tensions and conflicts shimmering underneath the surface of a wide group of characters as Dale attempts to insert himself into the wedding festivities and get the dance he feels entitled to.

The storytelling — powered by the sharp eye of the directing and the deftness of the editing — captures each character’s perspective with terrific specificity, but it also manages to convey the power of a collective familial portrait, and viewers get the sense of an entire psychological and emotional ecosystem. One member’s actions have consequences that ripple out, affecting everyone else — and especially so during a high-stakes event like a wedding.

The character of Dale is the motor of the narrative, and he’s played by actor William Russ — who fans of the sitcom “Boy Meets World” will recognize as Alan Matthews — with both well-meaning love for his daughter and an inability to see beyond his own wants. As his daughter, actor Annie Clark is able to embody a pain going back to childhood that is genuine and heartbreaking when it finally comes out. It’s only when he’s confronted with his daughter at his lowest point when Dale begins to understand the real meaning of being a parent: a deep desire for their children to be happy… even if it means setting their own desires aside. As he sifts through this personal revelation, he begins to understand and reconnect with the meaning of parenthood and is able to put those realizations into action.

Ending on a series of notes both sweet and quietly wrenching, “Father by Law” is heartwarming, but it comes by its warmer feelings by being honest about the pain. Minimizing the pain of others or making excuses to cover up feelings of sadness, shame and inadequacy are stop-gap behaviors that may make us feel better in the moment, but come at the expense of affection and trust — especially when it concerns the children we’re expected to love and guide to adulthood.

Yet, as “Father by Law” shows, it is never too late to make amends, and get our most important relationships on the right track — especially when we have genuine compassion for those we affect and true courage to look at ourselves.

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