Film Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medicine
‘Papa’, directed by Natalie Labarre (2016, USA)
Papa is a bright, fast-moving animation, delightful to watch, but in just over 6 minutes more complex and nuanced than one realizes at first. The film is an autobiographical take by the director Natalie Labarre about a father and his young daughter, opposites in every conceivable way, yet each striving in earnest to accommodate the other and to reconcile their differences. But their efforts often fail.
“Papa” himself is a big, burly engineering nerd, defined by his masculinity, technological inventiveness and passion for racing-cars; the daughter is a petite young girl of 6 or 7, whose outlook is feminine, age-appropriate, and a bit wry. They love each other but do not understand each other. The viewer grasps that fact immediately when, near the beginning of the film, the daughter sustains minor injuries when riding on her father’s back, mainly because “Papa” fails to appreciate their basic differences in size and strength. This has presumably happened before, too. The little daughter frequently retaliates, knowing exactly how to irritate her father by drawing cats on his engineering papers. He responds angrily, but instantly regrets it and tries to amuse her with ridiculously complicated inventions, like a vast clunky machine, the sole purpose of which is to place a sugar cube in her hot chocolate. The daughter then creates a much simpler version of her own. And so it goes.
Whenever his ploys are unsuccessful, “Papa” tries out fresh approaches to entertain the young girl and gain her approval. For example, at one point he manages to delight his daughter by reproducing her ballet steps with surprising grace, but only after having thoroughly humiliated her by cheering loudly in her dancing class. (He must have been the most embarrassing parent ever). His efforts culminate in a well-intended but outlandish invention, another vast machine, this time one that dispenses tasty-looking iced cupcakes. For her part, the daughter also makes concessions, and does so in a particularly touching way in the last frame of the film.
Like most of the director’s work in animation, “Papa” is wordless but not silent. In a 2016 interview with Blake Harris in a series on animators in Idea Rocket Ms. Labarre explained that she prefers to work without words, relying on sounds and drawings. Accordingly, “Papa” opens with the sounds of a scratchy, skipping LP record, a perfect reflection of the difficulty this these two have in making their needs known to each other. Later in the film, when there is a relative truce between the principals, the background music becomes sweetly melodic. But above all, Ms. Labarre’s drawings prove to be the clearest, most moving substitutes for words. These sketches exaggerate the physical differences between father and daughter, but also convey the love between them. The importance that is given to the characters’ facial expressions, particularly around the mouth, is consistent with what psychiatrists know about emotion: it is best relayed through changes in facial expression.
I have seen and loved this film since I first saw it in 2019, but in 2020, it reads differently, like so many other things in the midst of a pandemic. In 2019 I appreciated the film’s message that for relationships to work, a single gesture of reconciliation will not be adequate. Instead, a continuous process of reciprocal accommodation is required, and such efforts must be grounded in love.
But in 2020 I also feel the tension between the father’s penchant for technology, represented in the film by his absurdly convoluted gadgets, and the daughter’s steady push for more fundamentally human modes of communication. A related impasse has occurred in the era of Covid-19 when direct contact between people is limited by fiat and what remains is relegated to Zoom and the like. For our work as physicians, telemedicine suffices as a lifeline, but it can never be regarded an ideal substitute for direct human-to-human interaction. Yet whether on Zoom or in person, in all relationships it is the sincerity and the ardor of intention that matter most. We see, as an example, that the daughter in Papa is learning how to look beyond her father’s clumsiness to recognize the warmth of his aims. The struggles of the wise little girl in this film suggest how human values might survive in the age of technology.