Real life father and daughter Ewan and Clara McGregor have natural chemistry in this heartfelt, if familiar, road trip melodrama.
Nearly 30 years ago, Ewan McGregor exploded as an actor to watch in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. A culturally impactful film, Trainspotting explores the inner lives of heroin addicts in Scotland, their literal highs and lows, and how their struggle through both withdraw and the drudgery of life always seemed to push them back towards heroin use. It is hard to not see portions of McGregor’s portrayal of Trainspotting’s Mark Renton in his newest film, You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder, which debuted this week at SXSW. But while themes of addiction and the paradoxes that lie within exist in both films, You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder is equally occupied with a potentially thornier subject: family, and how to piece together a family after it has been splintered.
These are combustible elements under the best of circumstances—and McGregor’s co-star in this film his own daughter, Clara McGregor, with whom he has had a rocky relationship following his divorce from his first wife. In fact Clara, who co-wrote the story with Vera Bulder and screenwriter Ruby Caster, describes it as “inspired” by her real life difficulties with her father. (At the premiere, she described their relationship as being “in a good place.”) The film never reads as if it is running off real life resentment or hurt, but there is an inescapable meta aspect to the whole affair that feels difficult to ignore: Clara writing a story about a daughter-father relationship on the rocks that casts her in a role reminiscent to one of her father’s most iconic performances. (Also at the premiere, both Ewan and Clara McGregor stated that this second parallel was unintentional, but I remain skeptical.)
The focus of You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder is a fairly standard format, and one of the oldest genres in the history of film: the road trip movie. In this particular case, we pick up in the middle of the trip as a nameless father is taking his nameless daughter from San Diego to New Mexico, hoping to help her land on her feet following an overdose that almost took her life. Their relationship is strained, however, both due to ghosts of the father’s own distracted style of parenting and addiction issues and with the unspoken tension of the father’s new family, which wants to welcome the daughter.
The film’s format allows the action to remain fairly simple: There are obstacles on the way to Santa Fe, forcing the father and daughter off their route into strange, often humorous distractions, before they find themselves back on the trail. There are colorful locals, unexpected challenges, heartwarming sing-alongs in the middle of nowhere along a desert highway. The high point of the film involves a sequence that ropes in a spider bite and a sex worker, when a frothiness is layered over the simmering tension that exists underneath the skin throughout. As in real life, resentment might fade into the background in unexpected circumstances, but it never truly falls off completely; it finally explodes into fresh air.
Naturally, the McGregors make for a fairly captivating onscreen duo. There is an inherent familiarity that underlines their interactions, their ways of being around each other, that demonstrates a concern and connection that is impossible to fake. The blood harmony is the film’s strongest weapon at any given time.
You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder is director Emma Westenberg’s feature debut, and you can feel her following the movie rather than guiding it. In moments where she allows her personal choices to flourish, mostly in scenes where the daughter is suffering from withdraw or related effects of her addiction, the energy ramps up, but those moments rise and fall far too quickly and are surprisingly infrequent. For a film that centers around shared addictions, it rarely lingers there, which is a shame, as it offers a verve that some of the more traditional portions lack. And the film’s few moments of stepping outside the real lived circumstances into a whimsical reflection are jarring, feeling out of place with the more intimate portrayal of a fractured relationship.
Ultimately, You Sing Loud is a film about reconciliation and redemption, with addiction itself standing as the albatross that both ties the characters together and pushes them apart. It is that strange paradox that often lies at the heart of family, that things that push us apart can also seem to repair us. Clara McGregor’s character clearly wants to resent her father, but in turn can’t because they exist in such parallel, are so similar in nature. At one point in the film, the father tells his daughter that she got his sweet tooth. She chimes back, “Is that all I got?” The two share an awkward silence, and her intention in the comment is unclear, other than her wanting it to sting. But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that whatever failures the father may have had, he still will fight for his daughter, no matter what her impression of him will be. Living in that messiness, especially while in the hazy grip of addiction, is a rather universal message that is punctuated by real hurt, confusion, and love. And although the film can’t quite find another gear to operate, capturing that reality within the context of a narrative feature is a sort of magic.