“The Daughter” and Motherhood in Film: TIFF21 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 122 minutes

Director: Manuel Martín Cuenca

Writers: Alejandro Hernández,Manuel Martín Cuenca

Actors: Irene Virgüez, Javier Gutiérrez, Patricia López Arnaiz

By Caz Armstrong 

At 15-years old and 3 months pregnant, Irene (Irene Virgüez) is taken in by a teacher who works at the young offenders’ unit where she stays. She is welcomed with open arms and taken good care of. But there’s a catch. In exchange for shelter and secrecy, she must give up her baby to the couple.

Husband and wife Javier (Javier Gutiérrez) and Adela (Patricia López Arnaiz) are desperate to have their own child and have struck a deal with the vulnerable Irene. But the further along in the pregnancy she gets, the more conflicted she becomes as the baby starts to feel more like her own. On the other hand the couple become even more determined to keep the child themselves. Can she escape this escalating situation with her baby in tow?

The Daughter

This is a nail-biting suspense with very few characters and a strong central theme. Very early on we’re shown manipulation and desperation. Suspicion is rife and by the end we’re internally yelling at the characters, “Hurry up! Don’t get caught!” Being so remote also adds pressure to the characters’ actions.

Set in remote and rocky Spanish hills, the scenery is beautiful yet bleak. It’s also fairly barren, with endless white rocks and barely even any grass able to survive. In this setting, Irene is isolated and one of the only things that can support new life.

The themes of the film clearly revolve around parenthood and its associated ethics. Does anyone have a right to be a parent? I’d say no, but their desperation is understandable. Does the welfare of the child take precedence over being raised by family? Clearly not in the extreme, but where would one draw the line between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ upbringing? Being 15 years old doesn’t automatically make someone a bad parent.

There’s also a problematic premise here about natural motherhood. The film presents the stereotype of a childless woman so desperate for offspring that she becomes deranged, manipulative and violent. It also suggests that a “natural” mother would also go to extreme violent lengths to protect her child. These are themes that adoptive parents especially would have every right to protest against.

A woman’s worth has been tied to her value as a wife and mother for centuries so it’s easy to lean on the trope of a desperate childless woman. Women across the Western world received economic rights like being able to open a bank account without a man, own property, or get credit as late as the 1970’s and 80’s. We’re still in the first generation of women who are able to live independent lives without husbands or children so this trope is well established. 

And to be fair, a desire for parenthood is the foundation of the film, but if the balance of desire between the couple had been different it would have added a much fresher, less stereotypical and more compelling dynamic. There is a growing movement towards childlessness due to a range of factors including climate change and economics as well as women’s independence. So I hope that these dynamics will start to be explored in future instead of the desperate-barren-woman trope.

The Daughter

“The Daughter” (2021) is a little slow burning as the really nail-biting moments start to come quite a lot later on. But it is suspenseful, full of mystery, and builds into an intense finale. While the premise is problematic in places it’s not insensitively done. “The Daughter” is atmospheric and Hitchcockian, and will have you chewing on some big questions.

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