Estranged or dysfunctional families have been a source of inspiration for storytelling since the dawn of storytelling. Because we all have had at least some family, these stories are often very relatable. But because of their ubiquity, it can be difficult to say something fresh or particularly meaningful when dealing with a new family-centric story. Unfortunately, this is the case for Catherine Hardwicke’s new film Prisoner’s Daughter, which features some very good performances saddled with some of the hoariest cliches in recent memory.
The film opens with a prisoner, Max (Brian Cox), finding out that he has pancreatic cancer, and that he only has months left to live. The warden tells him that because he has turned his life around during this most recent stint in prison and has helped some other prisoners do the same, he will be allowed to leave prison and live the rest of his life under house arrest. The catch is that he has to find somewhere to live. Max’s only family is his daughter, Maxine (Kate Beckinsale), who he has disappointed often enough and missed enough of her life that she initially wants nothing to do with him. However, Maxine is struggling. She’s working multiple low-paying jobs to try to make ends meet for her and her son Ezra (Christopher Convery), who is epileptic. When Maxine’s loose-cannon, drug addict musician ex Tyler (Tyson Ritter) costs her one of her jobs with his violent behavior, she agrees to let Max stay, provided he pays rent and says nothing about being her father. She has told Ezra previously that her father is dead, so they concoct a story that Max is an uncle who suddenly needs a place to stay. Apart from the primary conflict between Maxine and Max, the other main threads of the story are that Maxine doesn’t allow Tyler to see Ezra because he’s always high, and that Ezra is bullied at school for his epilepsy and because he is too smart. But in his last days, Max wants to make right for his family. So he starts calling in favors. He asks Hank (Ernie Hudson), an old buddy who owns a boxing gym to start training Ezra how to fight. A criminal boss that Max kept quiet for offers him “whatever he wants”, so Max asks that an addition be built onto Maxine’s house so she can rent it out after he’s gone. The family begins to bond. Max’s connections get Maxine a new office job. Ezra stands up to his bullies Then Ezra invites his father to his birthday party. Maxine agrees, as long as he can come sober. Tyler can’t keep that promise, and the party ends disastrously, with Tyler and Max fighting and Ezra having a seizure. This is the last straw for Maxine, who says Tyler can’t see the boy any more, setting the stage for a violent climax.
To start with the film’s only real positive, several of the performances are very good. Cox is excellent as Max. His soulful remorse feels genuine without losing the edge of a man who has lived life hard. Harried lower-class American mom isn’t a role I would have expected from Kate Beckinsale, but she does admirably well with it. Ernie Hudson’s role is a minor one, but it’s always great to see him in a film. Christopher Convery has an uphill battle here. He’s saddled with a lot of poorly written precocious “smart kid” lines, but when the script isn’t trying too hard, he’s got a great natural energy.
Unfortunately, poorly written is the best descriptor for the film as a whole. The script by Mark Bacci is predictable from beginning to end. The dialogue feels like it’s been said in a hundred movies before this one. The themes are muddled and motivations are inconsistent. Even the ending, which makes a last-minute turn to action, is just lifted from Gran Torino. Hardwicke’s direction is competent and serviceable, but never more. In the end, Prisoner’s Daughter is frustratingly mediocre, with performances that the material doesn’t deserve.
Prisoner’s Daughter opens in theaters June 30th.