Max (Brian Cox) has just been freed from a long prison sentence. But that’s about as good as the good news gets. The reason for him being granted the opportunity to spend the rest of his sentence on house arrest is because he’s been diagnosed with cancer, with an estimated four to five months left to live. The catch is that his estranged daughter Maxine (Kate Beckinsale) who he hasn’t seen or spoke to in years has to accept him moving in with her. Maxine ultimately accepts solely based on Max’s promise to pay rent; she’s a single mom who’s strapped for cash, working a parade of low-paying service jobs on the Vegas strip and struggling to afford her son Ezra’s (Christopher Convery) epilepsy medication. Throwing these three figures together under one roof sets them all on a path toward reconciliation in director Catherine Hardwicke’s drama “Prisoner’s Daughter.”
“Prisoner’s Daughter” finds its soul in its compassion for its characters, thanks in part to capable performances across the board. Beckinsale, with her background in successfully portraying tough characters, slides easily into the role of Maxine, who has hardened thanks to her fraught home life, first growing up with her mother—an addict who passed away long ago— and father—a skilled boxer caught up in some shady dealings— and later with Ezra’s father, a violent addict constantly following Maxine to get at his son. But even though she is the title character, the film never feels entirely focused around her. Cox, in both face and manner, imbues Max with the resignation of someone who is weary of living and resigned to his fate (he consistently refuses any cancer treatments). As soon as he moves in, he sets about fixing up things for Maxine as a sort of atonement, remodeling part of the house into a guest suite that they can rent out for extra income, finding Maxine a cushy desk job, and, with the help of his old trainer Hank (Ernie Hudson) teaching Ezra how to fight back at the bullies who have been picking on him at school. Watching the gradual release of the tension between father and daughter—instigated in large part by Ezra’s enthusiasm and curiosity over their new house guest— is satisfying to an extent, but it all resolves itself a little too quickly and easily, and a lot of Maxine’s agency is taken away as the plot spins into Max feeling the need to do things for her. The big swing toward a redemption arc in the climax is particularly ham-fisted and jarringly violent, and further turns Maxine into a victim rather than an active participant in the story.
Hardwicke’s spare directorial style suits this story well, and follows similar themes related to society’s outcasts that are familiar to her previous work. But Mark Bacci’s screenplay is ultimately too preoccupied with putting its characters through cliched paces to reach the desired ending rather than getting to know them on a deeper level.
Runtime: 98 minutes