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Louis C.K.’s new film I Love You, Daddy is a deliberately provocative minefield

The movie aims its darts directly at Woody Allen. The results are mixed.

Louis C.K. in his latest film I Love You, Daddy
Louis C.K. in his new film I Love You, Daddy

At film festivals, buzz around certain films often emerges where you’d least expect it; at TIFF, for instance, one of the buzziest films has been I, Tonya, an unexpectedly great movie in which Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding. If people are talking in lines and at bars about your movie, it bodes well for its ongoing success.

I Love You, Daddy is a whole different animal. Written and directed by Louis C.K. — who’s either a philosopher king or a rumored sexual predator, depending on who you ask — it’s a film that apes a certain kind of mid-century comedy, often successfully, but with a 2017 twist. It’s shot on 35mm black-and-white film and interested in sex, consent, and how we treat artists (particularly older men) who are accused of taking advantage of younger and more vulnerable women charmed by their power and swagger.

Which is to say that yes, any speculation that I Love You, Daddy is really about Woody Allen is earned. It seems, at least in its bare outlines, to allude to decades of accusations of sexual wrongdoing against Allen (not to mention the fact that he had an affair with his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn during his and Farrow’s relationship, then broke up with Farrow and married Previn). It also just feels like a Woody Allen movie stylistically, particularly Manhattan, with lots of talking and arguing and angsty New York people.

John Malkovich plays esteemed and celebrated filmmaker Leslie Goodwin, who is idolized by C.K.’s character, Glen, and around whom rumors of pedophilia swirl — rumors that seem all but confirmed by Leslie’s unashamed penchant for women a half-century his junior. Glen is fine with excusing those rumors until Leslie’s gaze is turned toward his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz).

Coupled with CK’s penchant for exploring what it’s like to fail to be a good dude to everyone around you, I Love You, Daddy’s main thematic thread is uncomfortably age-gapped sexual relationships — and just generally messed-up relationships. In addition to the relationship between China and Leslie Goodwin, there’s also an actress named Grace, played by Rose Byrne, with whom Glen develops a relationship. It turns out Grace and Leslie had a sexual relationship in the past, too, and she tells Glen she’s had other relationships with older men, including when she was a 15. When he tries to tell her she’d actually been raped, she blows up at him — how dare he tell her what the nature of her relationships were?

It’s all very complicated, and the film doesn’t seem to arrive at any particular conclusion, which is its most confounding and infuriating characteristic.

Critics are calling I Love You, Daddy a “minefield”

I’m no Louis C.K. expert, and will leave a more complete examination of how the film fits into his larger body of work to someone more experienced and knowledgeable than me. I can say, however, that I Love You, Daddy has the distinction of being the one movie about which I’ve ever consciously thought, “I want to know what a straight white guy would think about this.”

Luckily, if you’re a film critic at a film festival, straight white guys with an opinion are pretty easy to find. I sat between two, both friends, during the film, one of whom scribbled notes so furiously he ran out of notebook paper; the other yelped audibly a half-dozen times when things got uncomfortable. And I’ve been talking about the movie and reading about it, too.

The best take I’ve read is from Slate’s Sam Adams, who notes the Woody Allen resonances in his post and writes comprehensively about its more uncomfortable elements: “I Love You, Daddy is likely to squick some people out whether or not they’re aware that C.K. has himself been accused of nonconsensual sex acts,” he writes. “But it’s especially queasy when viewed in that light.”

The aforementioned squicking-out is especially present in scenes where teenage girls take on Lolita-like characteristics. How scenes like these ought to be read — as arch commentary or cluelessness — is especially hard to sort out. As another friend put it on Twitter after the screening:

Rolling Stone’s David Fear called the film a “minefield” in his dispatch, describing the confusion watching the film inspires:

Is C.K.'s camera straight-up ogling the young woman, or is that simply how we're reading it? Or is this completely in character for China, who's learning how to weaponize her feminine wiles while playing up her daddy's-little-girl affectations so Dad will let her do whatever she wants? Are we supposed to feel this uncomfortably complicit watching this? Can all of these notions be equally correct, response-wise? Get used to this conflicted feeling. You're going to be experiencing it a lot.

He concludes that the film is “one of the strongest audience-baiting, thought-provoking, gut-busting conversation-starting entries of the festival – a minefield that's worth skipping through even as the shrapnel threatens to blow back at him and you.”

Me? I don’t totally know what I think of the film, a reaction I think lots of people will have when it hits theaters (which it will, having been acquired for $5 million at the festival). I want to hope C.K. knows what he’s doing — even if I’m at times frustrated by his particular take on women — and I imagine the people most likely to see I Love You, Daddy are already thinking about the questions it doesn’t just raise, but hurls straight at our heads. What consent means when it’s tied by law to as arbitrary and cultural a construct as age is a big, heavy question; who gets to decide what’s acceptable is another. These are complicated issues — but if a film raises them, it seems like it should try to find an answer.

Whether I Love You, Daddy is actually as smart and self-aware as it acts, though, I still regard as an open question. Saying things other people won’t can be a service to everyone. It can also just be cathartic for the artist.

But sometimes it’s just a stand-in for actual thinking. I’ll be pondering I Love You, Daddy more; for now, though, I’m not convinced it’s thoughtful, and suspect it’s nothing more than clever and funny provocation for provocation’s sake. Which, sure, is a choice an artist can make. But if you’re choosing to sow mines in a minefield, you can’t be too surprised if one blows up in your face.

I Love You, Daddy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was acquired for distribution by The Orchard. It is awaiting a release date.