TIFF 2023 'Daddio': Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn lead impressive film about human connection

Filmmaker Christy Hall lets her characters shine in movie set inside a New York taxi

Dakota Johnson in Daddio from writer/director Christy Hall (Courtesy of TIFF)
Dakota Johnson in Daddio from writer/director Christy Hall (Courtesy of TIFF)

The beauty of simplicity and truly character-driven storytelling shines in Christy Hall's movie Daddio, starring Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn.

The film begins with Johnson's character stepping out of John F. Kennedy International Airport and into a cab, driven by an older man, Penn's character Clark, getting a ride to Manhattan.

For the most part, the rest of the movie takes place in this cab. Clark starts posing questions to his passenger, who answer as she looks up from her phone. The more they talk the more they learn more about each other's lives, including the romantic relationship Clark's passenger is having with a man she calls "Daddy," the person she texting on the drive from the airport.

If you think that maybe sounds to bland to sustain a feature film, think again.

Hall's story was actually initially intended to be a stage play, which aligns nicely with a narrative that's largely focused on just two characters in one space. But the filmmaker did have conversations with producers about a film audience possibly expecting this story to expand outside of the cab.

"We talked about going into her memories, we talked about adding other characters, ... we really talked about it because I think we should have. It was a good exploration," Hall told Yahoo Canada during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). "But in the end, we really decided that the power of this piece is the fact that it is character-driven, one location. It's a chamber piece, basically."

Hall's film is a particularly complex rollercoaster of emotions, executed brilliantly by Johnson and Penn. It's personal, it's intimate, but Hall also plays with comedy in a way that really pushes the limits of where dark humour can actually go, before getting too dark for the audience to stomach.

The filmmaker highlighted that she believes the way she integrated comedy into this story stems from her theatre training.

"I think the purpose of a play and the job of a playwright is to create safe places for people to have really adult conversations," Hall said. "But I do think ... there's a practice in live theatre where a lot of times that absurdity or satire is harnessed through humour."

"I think that there's something really special about inviting people to laugh, because it also kind of opens up a deeper heart space for other emotions to come through. ... We're so divided right now, we're so dangerously divided, but if we can laugh together, if we can laugh at the absurdity of it all, then maybe we won't kill each other."

(L-R) US actress Dakota Johnson, US actor Sean Penn, and writer, director, and producer Christy Hall arrive for the premiere of
(L-R) US actress Dakota Johnson, US actor Sean Penn, and writer, director, and producer Christy Hall arrive for the premiere of "Daddio" during the Toronto International Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on September 10, 2023. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP) (Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Impressively, Hall only had 16 days to shoot Daddio, even more complex was that the shoot days were in between Thanksgiving and the December holidays, one of the busiest times for tourism in New York.

But that didn't prevent Hall from creating an environment that felt very real, that felt like we were actually going on this real cab ride with these characters.

"We utilized new technology, ... normally it's used by like ... really big sci-fi movies," Hall explained. "We surrounded the cab with these high-resolution, large format, giant LED panels that are projecting the actual drive that we shot on an array car with nine cameras."

"So that footage, that organic footage is playing on these panels. So what it did is it created an immersive experience for the actors. Even when Sean's driving, he can see the road in front of him. Dakota looked out the window, she can see cars whizzing by, so it gave them a feeling of time and place that they could engage with. And then also what was incredible too is that Phedon Papamichael, my incredibly [director of photography], he and I could be at the monitor and see what it was actually going to look like."

Director Christy Hall attends the premiere of
Director Christy Hall attends the premiere of "Daddio," at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during the Toronto International Film Festival, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, in Toronto. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

'I think we used to really honour the art of conversation'

The concept of leaning into human connection and listening to each other, even if we may not always agree, is at the core of Daddio and a particularly interesting social commentary.

"I think that we used to be able to engage in really healthy discourse, I think we used to really honour the art of conversation," Hall commented. "I don't know if it's the fact that now social media plays a huge role in our daily lives. I don't know if it's technology driven. I don't know if it's when you look at the state of American politics. I don't know exactly what it is."

"But I do think that we're really encouraged to cling to homogenized thought and if anyone says anything that we don't like, we immediately shut them down, we immediately push them away. I feel like when we talk to someone who sees the world differently than we do, even if they don't change our minds, it does open up different pathways in our brain and it does help us see the world from different perspectives."

Critical to having these messages flow through, also highlighted by Hall, is the power of films and characters in movies to really allow us to walk in the shoes of different people.

Hall shared that one woman came up to her after a screening with tears in her eyes, thanking the filmmaker for making this movie multigenerational. This woman said sometimes her father says things that "rubs [her] the wrong way" and Daddio made her inspired to "create more space" for him, and have more compassion.

"I do believe that at the end of the day, we are connected. We're infinitely connected," Hall said. "But right now we're being told a lie that we're separated, and I just don't believe that's true."