Emily L. Stephens’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.
“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” – Casaubon, narrator of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum
It’s a common trope: the father as a teller of tall tales, spinner of stories, a larger-than-life figure who molds our ambitions and relationships. Whether he’s cast as a fiercely loving stalwart, a scornful critic, or a straight-up flim-flam man, in these three films a father is the beacon lighting a girl’s path. A father’s presence – and, crucially, his absence – shapes a daughter’s sense of the world, and of her place in it.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) takes that quite literally. Eking out their life on the bounty of The Bathtub, an imagined makeshift territory in the bayous of Louisiana, Wink (Dwight Henry) defines the laws and limits of the world for six-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Quevanzhané Wallis), telling her that their swampy, wild home is “the prettiest place on earth” and instilling in her hostility and disdain for the conventional communities settled over the horizon, on the solid land.
Just as Hushpuppy’s knowledge of a larger world comes second-hand from her trusted father’s tongue, so her lessons from Wink come second-hand to us. “Daddy says up above the levee on the dry side, they’re afraid of the water like a bunch of babies. They built the wall that cuts us off. They think we all gonna drown down here. But we ain’t going nowhere.” He teaches her that The Bathtub has “more holidays than the rest of the world.” “Up in the dry world,” Hushpuppy narrates over the play and party of a gathering in The Bathtub, “they only got holidays once a year.” And, heartbreakingly, “Daddy says brave men don’t run from their home.” Daddy says a lot of things; Hushpuppy tries to live up to all of them.
Stories aren’t the only thing Hushpuppy learns from her father. She’s learned self-sufficiency and audacity, and a certain dogged resignation, too. Wink’s mercurial tempers and stubborn insistence on their subsistence life put Hushpuppy in jeopardy, as does his increasingly unstable health. And Hushpuppy knows it. She hides from his wrath in a cardboard-box fort, scraping out her own stories in raw charcoal on its interior, coolly narrating “If Daddy kill me, I ain’t gonna be forgotten.” When Wink disappears for days at a time, Hushpuppy sustains herself on a concoction of cat food and canned soup. “If Daddy don’t get back soon, it gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”
Wink romanticizes the freedoms of their life and he won’t brook dissent or persuasion, not in the face of the decaying landscape that’s driving away his neighbors, not even in the face of a brutal storm promising to devastate The Bathtub, destroying every inch of the world that he’s allowed his tiny daughter to know.
With brusque authority, he spins tales of their future – cobbling together a life from the scraps and refuse that floats their way, catching fish with their bare hands, waiting out storms and floods that will leave them lonely rulers of the land – and of their past, as he reminisces about her mother, who is visible to us only in snatched glimpses: a hand trailing along a kitchen counter, a winking eye, slim back and narrow hips clad in white briefs as she shoots a gator.
Wink looms large in his daughter’s life. He’s Noah and Prospero wrapped up together, the man who weathers storms and casts spells, who gave her life and gives her the world. But even the imperious and charismatic Wink cannot limit the world of Hushpuppy’s imagination, which travels far beyond The Bathtub to envision aurochs encased in polar ice and to consider a whole universe, of which she is only a tiny piece.
Are the aurochs a metaphor for Hushpuppy’s very real terror of the climate change gradually destroying her community, or of a more submerged fear: a fear of Wink and for Wink, a fear of his furies, of his sometimes scathing disfavor, of his absences, for the life of which he seems so careless? It hardly matters; to a child as young as Hushpuppy is, uncertainty of the physical world and uncertainty of a parent’s care are equally apocalyptic.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” Together, Wink and The Bathtub encompass Hushpuppy’s universe and, as she observes over and over again, the universe is crumbling.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) makes the most of its barren, crumbling Depression-era setting, casting the story of a motherless little girl and the grifter who just might be her daddy against a hardscrabble black & white world of flat horizons and dusty roads, a whole world with nothing much in sight but the squabbling pair as they ramble from town to town.
Little Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) doesn’t have much: a mother in a coffin, a cigar box holding her scant few treasures, and an aunt in Missouri who didn’t even come to Kansas for the funeral. Heck, almost nobody made it to the funeral: just Addie, the preacher, and two neighbor ladies. Traveling Bible salesman Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) and his rattletrap car rumble up just in time to drop flowers into the grave – and to get saddled with the task of transporting Addie to her Aunt Billie along his route.
But ol’ Moze knows how to make something from nothing. On the way out of Kansas, he pays a quick stop to the kin of the drunk driver who killed Addie’s mother and shakes him down for $200, which Moze promptly spends on auto repairs, new tires, even a shiny new hood ornament – and a single half-priced ticket on the night train to Aunt Billie’s hometown, a long lonely ride for a small-town nine-year-old. He’s fixed up his car, lined his pockets, and got himself shed of that kid all in an afternoon. Yessir, Moses Pray, that fast-talking flim-flammer, has set himself up pretty sweet.
Or so he thinks. In the hard-knock world of Paper Moon, the only person faster-talking, quicker-witted, and shrewder than Moses Pray is little Addie Loggins. He can outfox just about anybody, but she makes him look like a bumbling rube. Addie sees through his spiels and glad-handing with easy intelligence, adding her own canny spins to his schemes with a guileless face that none of his marks can resist. Like father, like daughter, you might say.
Addie is all brass tacks. She quickly identifies the fulcrum upon which their tenuous connection balances and she tilts Moze back and forth on it with tacit artistry: if he’s her father, then he needs to care for her, just a little. And if he’s not her father – or not willing to ‘fess up to it – then he owes her the $200 bounty paid on her momma’s life. “It ain’t as if you’s my pa, that’d be different,” she barks at him over the Coney Island dog and Nehi he tries to buy her off with.
And there it is, the whole premise of the film: footloose Moses Pray is saddled with his old flame’s little girl until he can rake in enough cash to buy her off. Paper Moon plays out a series of small-town vignettes as Addie and her reluctant candidate for father rattle around the Midwest, shortchanging cashiers and hawking bibles to scrape together her money, and getting in and out of scrapes together.
Is Moses Pray actually Addie’s father? That’s the question the film circles around, like the circuitous route Moze and Addie take on their trip. Addie’s late (and not much lamented, except by her and him) mother kept company with him, and with plenty of other fellas. At the funeral, one of the scant mourners assumes Moses must be kin, seeing how “it seems you’ve got the child’s jaw.”
It’s not much, but it’s more than enough for Addie, who has thought long and hard about her father’s identity, building her hopes on the tiniest acts of kindness: a man who touched her shoulder once and gave her a piece of candy, or a man who “smiled at me real nice once.” Tough-as-nails Addie spinning these cotton-candy dreams is a testament to how fondly she’s imagined her unknown father, and how heartbreakingly little she asks of a father’s love.
Low expectations are easy to meet, but to live under another’s expectations is slow poison, a daily pageant of disappointment, doubly so if you have no hope of meeting them. William Wyler’s period drama The Heiress (1949) is often described as a romance, and so it is, telling the tale (in the play adapted from Henry James’ Washington Square) of Catherine Sloper, an awkward young woman in love with a handsome bounder). But even more, this is a story of a father’s sway over a daughter, and of a daughter’s struggle to escape from those smothering strictures.
For long years, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) has coached his daughter Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) on the finer social graces to no avail. It’s hardly surprising that his advice has failed. Dr. Sloper dotes not on his daughter but on his long-dead wife, continually comparing Catherine’s shy uncertainty to her mother’s effortless charm, now amplified and burnished in his loving memory. Her father’s many detailed instructions – and the condescension implicit in them – don’t help Catherine find her feet in a demanding social world. Instead, he hinders her, keeping her cowed by his low opinion and exacting expectations.
When Catherine is alone with her affectionate Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), she’s all brisk competence and bright smiles, punctuating their patter with easy witticisms. But as soon as she’s reminde of the demands of their social position – and especially those of her demanding father – Catherine falters, her wit and intelligence giving way to stiff silences and gawky blunders. But she tries. Oh, how she tries to become the deft social beauty that her father envisions – not to entice a beau, but to live up to her father’s hopes. “I would do anything to please him! There’s nothing that means more to me than that!,” Catherine pleads to her aunt. But her eyes are haunted with the anticipation of her own failure, and of her father’s inevitable weary reproach.
And with good reason. The kindest compliment Dr. Sloper pays his daughter – “You look as if you had eighty thousand a year!” in admiration of a new dress – shows too clearly how he assesses Catherine’s only appeal. His private appraisal would break any daughter’s heart. Out of her earshot, his voice rich with contempt, he describes Catherine as “a mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise,” a waste of his diligent tutelage and a poor trade for his beloved wife.
When Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a young man of respectable family but no means, she’s equal parts enthralled and terrified. Like her father, Morris instructs her in the social graces of dancing and conversation, but his warm attention and humor erase the awkwardness between them, allowing her for once to feel at ease, vivacious, even endearing.
Morris, who borrows a wealthier cousin’s boots to attend a dance bustling with elegant young women, who courts a graceless young heiress on such brief acquaintance, who parries playfully with her widowed aunt, who offers overly courtly gestures to her straitlaced father – well, Morris does seem a bit of a bounder, crashing through the protective thicket of convention to pledge his love to Catherine. Is he a cad as well? Dr. Sloper certainly thinks so, and says it without hesitation. But when has Dr. Sloper hesitated to say anything unkind?
If Morris is a cad, if he is a gold digger intent only on Catherine Sloper’s fortune, no one has paved the road to her heart more smoothly than her father. Dr. Sloper’s disaffection and disdain has taught his daughter all too well how to subsist on short rations of kindness, how to supplicate and toil for every crumb of love, and left her unable – and no doubt unwilling – to resist any semblance of passion. Perhaps the most poignant moment in The Heiress occurs when Catherine tells her father of Morris’ proposal. She hesitates, a plea gleaming in her dark eyes, then implores him, “Father, tell him about me. You know me so well, it will not be immodest in you to… praise me a little.”
It is so little to ask, but her eyes show that she knows it is almost too much to hope for. And that is the heart of The Heiress: how little love we can learn to live on, how low we can set our hopes, and the inner resources upon which we must draw when even that little love and those small hopes seem too extravagant.
None of us deserves to shrink down our hopes and dreams and appetites for love to such pitiable proportions. If we’re lucky, the people who teach us to take our first steps and speak our first words, who first define the bounds and breadths of our small worlds, also teach us that we are worthy of kindness and respect and love. But sometimes they don’t or won’t or can’t, and we have to learn it for ourselves. And whatever worlds those parents and caregivers build for us, there comes a time when we must reach beyond their boundaries, to build our own worlds and learn our own lessons, and to pass on those lessons – of kindness, of respect, of love – to those we find there, in the world we build for ourselves.