As any synopsis, trailer, or even poster for Daughter will tell you, the movie is about a young woman who’s forced to become part of an unusual family. While most kidnapping movies take some time to introduce the main characters and increase the emotional stakes once they are captured, Deshon dismisses the build-up and goes straight to the jugular. From the opening scene of Daughter, we are confronted with the strange rituals and beliefs of the surrogate family, sharing the confusion of their latest victim (Vivien Ngô). The strategy pays off, as the movie still has plenty of time to turn Ngô’s Daughter/Sister into a layered character, but we never escape the claustrophobic confines of the film.
Inside the house that becomes the titular Daughter’s prison, we slowly unravel the reasons that led Father (Casper Van Dien) to adopt such an extreme lifestyle. As the family patriarch, Father does everything he can to protect his Son (Ian Alexander) from unknown dangers, enlisting the help of the replaceable Mother (Elyse Dinh) and Daughter. The goal is to create a sterile environment where Father’s subjective interpretation of life can flourish, uncontaminated by the dangerous people on the outside. That means, at its core, Daughter is all about the limits of subjective truth and the dangers of ignoring objective reality. As such, isolation becomes a powerful storytelling tool, as Father’s twisted world vision can only strive when it remains undisputed.
With a makeshift bible that remixes Orthodox Christianity and tight control of Son’s education, Father ensures he’ll remain the family’s leader. There’s also a good dose of punishment for those who disobey the most simple and ludicrous orders, with Mother and Daughter’s life constantly on the line. These sacrifices are needed for Son to achieve his mysterious true potential, and while Daughter is not so concerned in offering clear answers about what Father truly believes, the whole movie feels like a clever experiment on education.
Like Dogtooth or 2013’s We Are What We Are before it, Daughter makes a solid argument for how dangerous it is to shut children out from the world and prevent them from developing tools to deal with conflicting information in a universe that’s too complex to fit in any single subjective interpretation. And on that note, Daughter doesn’t hold its punches when it comes to telling the audience that subjectivism is a source of violence, capable of oppressing individuals and forcing them to reproduce ideas that just don’t make sense when put to test against reality. The tragedy of it all is that Son, deprived of any other source of information, is slowly shaped to be just like Father.
While all that already makes for one heck of a movie, Daughter goes beyond similar movies through its clever use of the Vietnamese language. Since Daughter and Mother share a Vietnamese background, they can communicate in secret, which often ignites Father’s rage but also gives them some liberties inside the house. What’s more curious about this choice is that by using Asian women as replaceable resources, Father is also making a statement about a genuine human trafficking issue. We all know the main victims of human trafficking come from peripheral countries, and the myth of the Asian woman’s docility turns them into primary targets for family men who truly believe they are building a loving family, mistaking obedience for happiness, and fear for respect.
While Daughter has much to say in its tight 95-minute runtime, the film also serves as a testament to Deshon’s assertive direction. Every visual aspect of Daughter contributes to the story and the ideas the film explores. The fixed camera shots, for instance, reflect the static life of the family. Simultaneously, subtle zooms get us closer to the characters, so we can see their mask crack, and subtle pan creates a certain discomfort to underline there’s something wrong with the supposedly ordained life. The flickering on the image also gives Daughter an analog horror feel that underlines how the family is stuck in tradition, and Father’s teachings tell that knowledge, reason, and technological advancement are evils that must not enter the house. Similarly, the beige palette Deshon uses in his first feature echoes Father’s lifeless authority, draining every possibility of creativity or self-expression.
Each frame of Daughter seems to have been cautiously planned and executed to serve Deshon’s nerve-wracking social experiment. And while the restricted space where the movie happens could drag things down, the repetition of the family’s everyday life is elevated by brilliant performances. Van Dien, for instance, plays a terrifying villain that nurtures an authentic belief he’s a good man doing good things. And beneath Dinh’s compliance, we can see hate bubbling. With so little dialogue for each character, every actor must do the most with the time they get, and fortunately, the whole cast is up to the task.
Sometimes, Deshon’s obsessive attention to detail drains some of the fun from Daughter, and the movie might burn too slowly to please every horror fan. Still, the movie is a rare achievement, turning a small budget and a simple story into a cinematic experience we can unravel to find new things over multiple viewings. So, while Daughter is not your classic horror experience, it’s still a powerful movie that deserves all the praise we are sure it will get.
Daughter comes to theaters and on-demand on February 10.