Daddio is a conversation-sparking drama anchored by the nuanced performances of Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson: Sydney Film Festival Review

The prospect of being stuck in a cab for 90 minutes with a driver that isn’t afraid to wax lyrical about the dynamics of men and women doesn’t exactly sound like the most pleasant experience.  And whilst that it is the entire premise of Christy Hall‘s conversation-provoking Daddio, audiences pre-empting their annoyance at such a set-up are doing themselves a massive injustice.

Equally humorous, heartbreaking and rightfully uncomfortable at once, Hall – who has given herself the unenviable task of placing her debut feature entirely in the restrictions of a New York cab – challenges how men and women relate to each other, with Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson delivering some of their finest, most natural work as a nameless passenger and the driver, Clark, who interact with one another across their trip from JFK to her residence.

When she enters his cab, she’s the one to truly ignite the conversation.  Though she initially glances at her phone – the figure on the other end becoming a more prominent presence throughout – Clark is quite taken by the fact that she isn’t endlessly scrolling and is actually engaged in the conversation he continually volleys back.  There’s a certain ease at how they talk to one another, but Hall can’t help but lace the film with a tension too.  Will Clark, who informs her that she’s the last fare for the night, respect her? Or is there something more sinister at play?

This could be something of a preconceived notion purely off the casting of Penn, who is often an aggressive, volatile personality on screen.  He notes how his passenger looks like someone who can “handle herself”, and it’s clearly a deliberate ploy on Halls’ part as the screenwriter to keep us second-guessing not only his intentions, but hers too.  She enjoys the challenge of breaking his stereotypes of how women should act, but, wisely, denies letting him known her age as to maintain a certain sense of weariness; she states how a woman’s value is cut in half after they turn 30, noting that he would think of her differently should she be in her 20s or 30s.

She does afford him the knowledge that she’s from Oklahoma, as well as the fact that she’s having an affair with an older, married man – someone she calls “Daddy.”  It’s this Daddy – and the light-Spanish inclination of that figure regarding the film’s title makes sense as it moves across its brisk running time – that becomes the film’s third character, a creepy, unseen presence who has a fetishized view of who she is in their relationship.  He sends a barrage of lewd text massages – and a rogue dick pic – hoping to entice her evident sexual creativity, but, exercising willpower, she continually turns her attention to Clark.  Catching his eye continually in the rearview mirror, there’s a flirtatiousness to how she looks at him and purses her lips, but it’s clear it’s more a power dynamic between the two as they start tallying a score between each other when they start sharing personal anecdotes that take the other by surprise.

The dynamic between the two shifts throughout Daddio.  Sometimes they’re humorously fascinated with each other.  Others, more offended.  But they never cease wanting to know more, and it’s in that desire to uncover the psyche of their opposite that keeps the film effortlessly engaging.  There will be many that won’t respond to the simplicity of the film’s setting, or see it as a monotonous experience (or even gawk at Penn’s character’s views on a woman’s place, which drew some walkouts from this Sydney Film Festival screening), but the fact it will spark so much conversation is why this film proves such necessary viewing.

To think a movie set inside a cab about two people’s conversations is a worthy cinematic venture may not make the most sense to those that are being even more selective with their theatrical experiences, but between Phedon Papamichael‘s rich, organic cinematography, Dickon Hinchliffe’s melancholic piano score, and the nuanced performances of both Penn and Johnson, Daddio is a surprising communal experience.  It’s awkwardly comical, subdued in its revealed tragedy, and, ultimately, lovingly tender.


Daddio is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, running between June 5th and 16th, 2024.  For more information head to the official SFF page.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.