Under a blazing Sardinian sun, 9-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu) — a pale, red-haired girl with an aura of curiosity and loneliness — wanders the local rodeo, fascinated by the horses but also by the shock of a lanky strawberry blond having drunken sex with a burly worker. Vittoria quickly runs to her mother Tina (Valeria Golino) for the comfort of a hug and cotton candy, but a connection in that unexpected encounter ignites the turmoil that animates Laura Bispuri’s captivating family drama “Daughter of Mine.”
The Italian filmmaker’s second film, after 2015’s singular character study “Sworn Virgin,” is another tale steeped in identity and discovery, only divided across three females figures in a state of emotional flux. It isn’t long before what we suspect is confirmed, that hard-drinking party girl Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) is Vittoria’s birth mother.
The two women, one eager for a child, the other too wedded to chaos to raise one, had long held a tacit agreement: that the truth be kept secret from Vittoria, and that Tina and her husband Umberto (Michele Carboni) would offer occasional help to Angelica’s meager existence running a remote, crumbling farm. But the pact is threatened when Angelica’s debt trouble becomes so untenable that she’s under pressure to sell the property and move. Faced with a last chance at some personal redemption, this brittle hedonist welcomes the chance to secretly establish a bond with the fragile, needy Vittoria, who recognizes in this lost but brashly charismatic adult companion a fellow outsider.
It’s no surprise that news of their time together sends Tina into a tailspin. And when the mothers’ dueling affections turn into a bitter battle, “Daughter of Mine” makes tangibly vital a central question about parenting: when should the practicality of being protective give way to something more experiential and accommodating? What cuts to Tina’s core is the fear that her best traits — sensitivity and steadfastness — are no longer enough. Whereas Angelica, awakened to the possibility her unruly worldliness is a teachable gift, feels back in the fight as a member of society, one dominated on their beautiful yet harsh island by hard, judgmental men.
But Vittoria isn’t just a kid in between two opposing forces — she’s taking it all in, and it’s to Bispuri’s and co-screenwriter Francesca Manieri’s credit that as discouragingly recriminatory as Tina’s and Angelica’s feud gets, the movie’s focus on Vittoria’s own maturation, and her ability to ferret out the truth in this conflict, never falters. In fact, how this child goes from disputed figure — loved and misunderstood equally — to unifying force is one of the movie’s more wise and beautiful strengths, even if it involves a late suspense ploy that’s both too schematic in its plotting and too thematically literal in its imagery.
Central to the movie’s full-bloodedness, though, when all pistons are working, are the richly felt portrayals from its trio of leads, each of whom handle with aplomb Bispuri’s penchant for restless long takes and shifting dynamics within those shots. With her expressive eyes and subtle body language, Golino finds the soulfulness in a worrying guardian turned turf fighter, while Rohrwacher, in her second go-round with the filmmaker after starring in “Sworn Virgin,” further entrenches herself as a world-class actor with her powerful mix of unashamed brokenness and sporadically grabbed dignity. (If you haven’t checked out her sister Alice’s best-of-2018 movie “Happy as Lazzaro” on Netflix, in which Alba also especially shines, do so.) Newcomer Casu, meanwhile, holds her own and then some.
It’s rare, even in the most devoted portraits of motherhood, to see this aspect of a woman’s life treated as a passionate choice instead of a hallowed duty. Not to mention rendered as a force too dimensional in its power to be found entirely in any one woman. Mothers are complicated. Children are complicated. “Daughter of Mine” doesn’t try to explain this bond — it just wants to revel in its glorious, enriching messiness.
‘Daughter of Mine’
In Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 1, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.