Real-life father and daughter Ewan and Clara McGregor bring poignancy to this gentle character study

You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder

Source: SXSW

‘You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder’

Dir: Emma Westenberg. US. 2023. 102mins

A father tries to reconnect with his child after too many years apart in You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder, a road drama heightened by the onscreen pairing of Ewan McGregor and his real-life daughter Clara. Drawing from their own formerly bumpy relationship, the actors bring a weathered authenticity to this story of two addicts haunted by the happy bond they once shared — and the damage that has been done since. Director Emma Westenberg has crafted a gentle character study flecked with sorrow and regret but, despite the picture’s quietly moving moments, the conventionality of proceedings ultimately overwhelms the script’s modest insights. 

 It’s hard not to view ’You Sing Loud’ as an emotional working-through for these two actors

You Sing Loud premieres at SXSW, with Ewan McGregor serving as the biggest draw for potential buyers. The personal nature of the material should attract indie audiences, and sympathetic reviews could help raise awareness for this muted, heartfelt drama.

As the picture opens, an unnamed father (Ewan McGregor) and his 20-year-old daughter (Clara McGregor) are on a road trip from San Diego to New Mexico, planning to meet up with a painter friend of his. The pair have not seen each other in 10 years, and their reunion is a tense affair: she recently overdosed and almost died, prompting him to swoop in and take her away from her poisonous environment. But she is still angry at her father for leaving her and her mother to start a new family — plus, what right does he have to judge her, given his own addiction issues? Feeling guilty for being so absent in her life, the father is hiding a secret: he’s actually driving her to a rehab centre.

In interviews, Ewan McGregor has alluded to the fact that You Sing Loud touches on certain past tensions in his relationship with his eldest daughter, although the film’s rehab plotline is apparently fabricated. That said, the actor’s public acknowledgement of his battles with alcoholism — and his own divorce — certainly colour Ruby Caster’s script, whose story is credited to Clara McGregor, among other writers. It’s hard not to view You Sing Loud as an emotional working-through for these two actors, and the characters’ frayed-but-loving rapport can be quite poignant.

Resentful that her dad tries using her childhood nickname, Turbo, the unnamed daughter wants to get away from him, acting out and challenging his protestations that he is concerned about her well-being. (To her mind, if he really was worried, he would not have abandoned her so long ago.) Clara McGregor brings raw, brittle intensity to her performance, making it clear that this addict’s insistence that she is fine is a lie she tells others — and maybe herself. (Indeed, she clandestinely seeks out drugs and alcohol whenever she can on the trip.) Meanwhile, Ewan conveys all of this character’s helpless guilt, recognising that he most likely passed a genetic susceptibility to addiction on to his daughter. Even though they haven’t been in each other’s orbit for a decade, in a sense he has never left her – cursing her with the same demons he himself has fought hard to overcome.

Cinematographer Christopher Ripley captures the open roads and empty deserts of the American southwest with an offhand beauty that never distracts from the slender redemption story. Predictably, the father and daughter come across quirky characters during their journey, but music video and television director Westenberg does her best to undersell their idiosyncratic qualities. She is less successful while struggling to bring a fresh perspective to overly precious flashbacks of the daughter as a girl (Devyn McDowell), who views her father as a towering, adoring figure who, eventually, will betray her trust.

But as tender as the central performances are, You Sing Loud succumbs to overheated plot developments that undercut the sensitivity shown to the daily struggles of addicts. Westenberg throws in a few too many forced twists that upset the film’s unassuming tone, pushing the story toward strained melodrama. In the process, You Sing Loud’s familiar but sincere examination of estranged generations starts feeling artificial rather than lived-in. 

That is a shame, as Ewan McGregor can be powerfully vulnerable in the role. This father may have turned his life around, but he will never forgive himself for what he put his daughter through, and the more that he tries to erase the distance between himself and his flailing child, the clearer it is how far apart they are. One suspects that You Sing Loud speaks clearly to these two actors in ways the rest of us will never fully appreciate.

Production companies: Sobini Films, Killer Films, Deux Dames Entertainment, Black Magic

International sales: UTA, Schwartz-WrightM@unitedtalent.com and jake.carter@unitedtalent.com 

Producers: Mark Amin, Christine Vachon, Clara McGregor, Vera Bulder, Greg Lauritano, Mason Plotts, Cami Winikoff

Screenplay: Ruby Caster, story by Ruby Caster, Clara McGregor, Vera Bulder

Cinematography: Christopher Ripley

Production design: Stephonik

Editing: Autumn Dea

Music: Raven Aartsen

Main cast: Clara McGregor, Ewan McGregor, Kim Zimmer, Devyn McDowell, Sasha Alexander, Jake Weary, Vera Bulder