In our heteronormative society, the cliché terms “momma’s boy” and “daddy’s girl” serve as shorthand for how to understand familial relationships. Mothers covet sons and spoil them; why else does the “evil mother-in-law” narrative exist? Fathers overly protect their daughters and threaten away suitors; why else does the “dad with a gun on prom night” narrative exist? They’re simplistic assessments, but everyone recognizes them.
Mickey Peck (Camila Morrone) in Mickey and the Bear is not exactly a daddy’s girl, but her father might think so. She is protective of her father, defensive of his behavior, and indulgent with some of his worst choices. To understand the Peck family dynamics, you have to grasp all that Mickey tolerates, and all that she’s sacrificed. She is technically an adult, having just turned 18 and months away from graduating from high school, but she’s been the responsible one in their home for years. Her mother is gone, and her father Hank (James Badge Dale, of Hold the Dark) is a veteran suffering from severe PTSD, and he vacillates between terrifying anger and pathetic neediness.
He digs through her backpack for cash from her job as a taxidermist’s assistant, because he doesn’t work. He relies on Mickey to organize all his pills and prescriptions, because he can’t be trusted to take them himself. He forgets that it’s her birthday, because he was too busy playing hours of murderous video games. Hank is a mess and an unbearable weight upon her, and while everyone in their small town of Anaconda, Montana, seems to know this—to inherently recognize that Hank’s braggadocio is mostly bullshit, and that Mickey’s devotion is based partially in fear—no one seems to care much about getting involved.
But with high school graduation approaching, Mickey sees both an ending and a beginning. Maybe she can finally break things off with her boyfriend Aron (Ben Rosenfield, who you might recognize from Boardwalk Empire or Twin Peaks: The Return), who plays crappy rap music for her and tries to force her into blowjobs. (A scene where Aron gives her a gift of red silk lingerie at school, and she immediately goes to a pawn shop afterward to sell it, is a great insight into their relationship.) Maybe she can transfer some of the responsibility of Hank’s care to a local psychiatrist who specializes in treating veterans, Dr. Watkins (Rebecca Henderson, of Russian Doll!). And maybe she can start a new life somewhere else, somewhere close to an ocean, somewhere where she can be a normal college student, somewhere that Hank won’t be.
Morrone played a similar sort of character to Mickey as Jessie in last year’s stoner comedy Never Goin’ Back, in which she and her best friend raise each other, work at a dead-end job, and end up stealing money to travel together. That was more of a comedic turn, but the bones between that role and this one are the same, and Morrone does a good job exuding a combination of hardened brashness and sly allure. She vacillates between clearly loving her father and wanting to heal him and resenting his utter refusal to take care of himself, and her great chemistry with Dale—who exhibits a frightening live-wire energy here—helps us fill in an understanding of what years of this chaotic relationship must have been like for Mickey.
Is Hank a sympathetic figure? Director and screenwriter Annabelle Attanasio doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that his time in the U.S. military is both his sole source of pride and community and the cause of his PTSD and mental decline, and Dale is excellent at whipping between moods and tones. But when he says to Mickey, “I don’t care what you do … One day you’re gonna forget about me,” it’s how Morrone reacts to that statement that defines Mickey and the Bear: a combination of sadness, resignation, and hope.
Morrone — who said in a post-film Q+A that her own background as a professional model, traveling the world alone at 15, draws her to roles like Mickey and Jessie — lets all those conflicting emotions play out on her face. As her relationship with her father becomes more fraught, you’ll keep coming back to that 18th birthday dinner, when Hank rejected his own daughter and then encouraged her to dine and dash on the meal because he didn’t have enough cash to cover it. He hadn’t stolen enough from her before, and he didn’t want to accept her help afterward — an altercation that serves as a microcosm for the entire film. Mickey and the Bear is a story that simultaneously explores failed ambition, familial guilt, and adolescent rebellion, and it’s Attanasio’s precise vision supported by Morrone’s and Dale’s performances that ensures this story doesn’t veer into poverty porn and instead centers it as one of female resilience and self-will.
Mickey and the Bear screened at the 2019 SXSW film festival.
Header Image Source: SXSW