There’s something fundamentally different about a car ride at night. The ambiance is thicker. You notice the car making sounds you don’t hear during the day. The reflection of passing lights on the windshield becomes almost hypnotic. And the conversation? It can get deep. If you happen to get stuck in traffic during a late-night drive, what else is there to do but talk? Daddio, the striking and confident feature film debut from writer/director Christy Hall, features two characters talking inside a NYC cab as they make a 90-minute trek from JFK airport to midtown Manhattan. If that sounds dull on the surface, rest assured the movie is anything but dull.

The otherwise unnamed “Girlie” (Dakota Johnson) hops a cab after getting off a plane. She is clearly troubled. By what, we do not know, although it clearly has to do with the person she’s texting. The cab driver, Clark (Sean Penn), appears to realize that. He makes small talk, joking around with Girlie and trying to be jovial. Clark is brash, a little bit pushy. He asks questions that most of us wouldn’t consider asking a stranger. Girlie responds, playfully giving the brashness back to him. When the cab is halted by a traffic jam, they begin the process of revealing things to one another.

That’s as far as I can go. To tell you why Girlie is troubled or to specify the subjects she and Clark discuss would be to unravel Daddio before you’ve had a chance to see it. Several times, the cabbie says that years behind the wheel have taught him how to read people. He senses that this woman needs to get something off her chest. Baring parts of his own soul encourages her to open up further. Any time you have a two-character, dialogue-based drama, there are prone to be moments that are slightly overwritten. This film has very few of them. The vast majority of the dialogue is penetrating. We hang on to every word the characters speak, because every sentence provides an additional clue about who they are and what kinds of lives they lead. Their joys and heartaches emerge in unexpected ways, at unanticipated times.

What Johnson and Penn work up together is magical. A dynamic is built between them that sells the spontaneous connection between Girlie and Clark. Johnson does career-best work, gradually peeling away her character’s layers to reveal the monumental heartbreak inside. Penn, meanwhile, uses a thick New York accent for the cab driver and gives him a body language all his own. The stars render these two people in a manner so real and so raw that you get drawn into them, just as they get drawn into each other.

The danger of setting an entire movie inside a car is coming off as stagey. Obviously, there's no overt action. Daddio gets around that problem thanks to vibrant cinematography from Phedon Papamichael that captures a distinct nocturnal vibe. His work is aided by first-rate sound design that sets the stage with ambient noise, from the whoosh of passing cars to the sound of rubber tires rolling over cracks in the pavement. In other words, the film psychologically puts you inside the taxi with Girlie and Clark.

Where the story goes isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. The source of Girlie’s woes has fueled plenty of other dramas. Daddio still treats it with sincere emotion. With Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn bring great meaning to the themes, this is ride you’ll absolutely want to take.

out of four

Daddio is rated R for language throughout, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan