2024, R, 101 min. Directed by Christy Hall. Starring Sean Penn, Dakota Johnson, Marcos A. Gonzalez, Shannon Gannon.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 28, 2024

If it’s a bad day in the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, it could take you an hour and a half to make it from JFK to Midtown. But it’s late when Girlie (Johnson) lands and heads straight to a taxi stand and gets in a cab driven by Clark (Penn). That time of night, if the weather, traffic lights, and NYSDOT repair teams are with you, it’s easily less than half that. So for their journey to make a full, in-real-time feature, it seems inevitable that there are some narrative diversions and detours, places where their intimate conversation between strangers can become revelatory about both of them.

The debut feature from writer/director Christy Hall (a playwright and co-creator of Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This), Daddio catches the eternal dilemma of everyone who’s ever taken a cab after a long, demanding flight after an equally long, demanding trip: to talk with your driver or not. Clark’s good either way, and Penn delivers a deliciously vivid character in this Hell’s Kitchen native who has become the kind of cabbie that’s either your ultimate nightmare or your best friend for a fare. For Girlie, he’s a therapist and confessor, a stranger who understands strangers, knows how to let people open up even if it causes them to wince internally. “I know people,” he tells Girlie, and he’s got her story pegged, if not the exact details.

And the details are what make Daddio so fascinating. Exactly who’s texting her, how he met his first wife, why she was in Oklahoma, why he’s never liked his name. It’s also in how they’re revealed, and it all comes down to stylistic differences in performance. Much of the conversation is monologues by Penn, that kindly smoke-and-whisky rumble perfectly deployed for this philosopher of the front seat, a man whose nature is antithetical to judgment. Like Clark says, he knows people, and Penn never indulges any magical, paternal edge to him. He may curse like a sailor on shore leave but that’s just him. That’s just people.

Johnson has her own share of longer speeches, but the early kernel of Girlie is in silences, in physical beats and tics, in how she scrolls through her phone and answers those texts, and when she decides to speak, what she’ll reveal to this stranger. Not that Penn is a rock: His paddling on the wheel to an unheard song, his glances back in the mirror, the pivotal moment when he turns around and leans over his seat, are all note-perfect choices that bring charming life to some guy in a seat who the audience mostly just sees the back of his head. That turnaround is echoed later when Girlie rests her forearms on the plastic barrier between front and rear, signaling a subtle change in their relationship. It’s a fixed fare, so they may as well get everything they can from the trip.

Like the best movies set within a car – Jim Jarmusch’s deliciously idiosyncratic Night on Earth and Steven Knight’s peerless Tom Hardy one-hander LockeDaddio takes the forced intimacy of the space and uses it to create this consensual, nonsexual liaison between the pair. The seated dance between Johnson and Penn is witty, earnest, honest, and overflowing with kindness, making Daddio a remarkable story of two strangers opening up to each other. The traffic may grind to a halt, but you’ll be sad when the ride is over.

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Daddio, Christy Hall, Sean Penn, Dakota Johnson, Marcos A. Gonzalez, Shannon Gannon

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