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An Indie Rebuttal to Blockbuster Hero-Dads

The weak, helpless fathers in The Captive and Little Feet are stark contrasts to the absurdly macho patriarchs of many action films

Ryan Reynolds in The Captive

Liam Neeson obsessives who deep down believe they’re just a single “taken” loved one away from transforming into the ultimate bad-ass could stand to watch Atom Egoyan’s The Captive—at least for an hour or so. Matthew Lane (Ryan Reynolds), the distraught father in the latest from the writer-director of The Sweet Hereafter, has also lost his daughter to a sinister kidnapping ring, but unlike Brian Mills—Neeson’s ex-spec-ops-assassin in the Taken series—Matthew has no “particular set of skills” that might help him recover Cassandra (Peyton Kennedy), the 9-year-old last seen waiting in the backseat of his truck while he picked up a to-go order for dinner. He doesn’t even have the emotional wherewithal to cope with the guilt he feels for leaving his daughter alone and vulnerable for those crucial few minutes.

In fact, Reynolds’ Matthew is perhaps the opposite of Neeson’s Brian. He’s the owner of a failed landscaping business, and his soon-to-be-estranged wife Tina (Mireille Enos) views him not as a potential savior, but as a negligent father, undeserving of forgiveness and incapable of redemption, earned or otherwise. The police detectives assigned to the case, Dunlop (Rosario Dawson) and Cornwall (Scott Speedman), see Matthew as, at best, a victim (Dunlop’s view) or a possible suspect (the inexplicable opinion of Cornwall). In the course of The Captive’s eight-year, nonlinear timeline, Matthew manages to throw a single, cathartic punch and make a couple of satisfying speeches, but he’s mainly just shoved around, silently resented, or flat-out accused of playing the villain in his own tragedy.

Unfortunately, Matthew’s situation more closely resembles those of the more than 10,000 real families with missing children reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children last year, than does the absurd masculine wish fulfillment depicted in the Neeson action vehicles. Reynolds, far from Marvel-hero mode, plays a broken man, unable to move on for fear of betraying the memory of the daughter he feels responsible for losing. “There are no happy endings,” says Detective Dunlop of the cases she works as head of the local child exploitation unit, “only stories that just stop.” That The Captive’s first hour so closely resembles this kind of story makes its move toward a more conventionally complete, if not outright “happy,” ending in the final act seem like a cheat—unfair not to the viewer, but to the countless actual parents who find no such resolution.

Credit Egoyan, however, for making his film’s victim (played in later scenes by Alexia Fast) much more active in her own story than the doped-up virginal MacGuffin Neeson slayed half of Eastern Europe to save. Cassandra—who ages beyond the sexual interest of her captors during the film’s duration and is forced to help them lure new victims—begins manipulating her abductors in an attempt to escape, a tactic real victims employ to bring about their own resolutions, happy or sad, in the absence of any CIA-trained, silver-fox saviors.

Nico, Lana, and their neighbor in Little Feet

Of course, many more children are the victims of forces even harder to fight, let alone define, than a faceless kidnapping cabal. Little Feet, the latest film by writer-director Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), stars Lana and Nico Rockwell (the director’s real-life children) as a young sister and brother trying to process the death of their mother in a world now largely absent of adults. Their overworked, alcoholic father (the director, in what amounts to a cameo role) is to them almost as abstract an idea as the memory of their mother. Lana and Nico, also credited with helping create the film’s story, live in a world that revolves around improvised games and salvaged toys and trinkets in their small East Los Angeles apartment.

When one of the children’s two pet goldfish (significantly, the “momma fish”) dies, Lana and Nico take pity on the survivor and skip school to release it into the L.A. River. The great body of water they imagine themselves to be questing toward is, of course, a famously bone-dry concrete ravine, but comparatively, that’s just one of the minor nonsensical cruelties these impoverished, neglected children must reconcile with their worldviews. Shot in 16mm black-and-white and clocking in at a little over an hour, Little Feet relies on the symbolism of freeform child’s play to convey its ideas, in much the same way its protagonists trust that 99-cent-store animal masks can transform them from powerless mourners into brave adventurers. The result, in both cases, is charming and magical and more than enough.

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