Producers: Dakota Johnson, Ro Donnelly and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Christy Hall, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis and Terry Dougas   Director: Christy Hall   Screenplay: Christy Hall   Cast: Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn   Distributor:  Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B

Watching a woman taking a cab ride from JFK to downtown NYC that’s extended to nearly two hours by a traffic accident might not seem like a particularly exciting prospect, but it turns out that when the woman is played by Dakota Johnson and her driver by Sean Penn, the result is surprisingly interesting.  Of course, a good script and solid direction by Christy Hall, along with canny cinematography by Phedon Papamichael and editing by Lisa Churgin, are also important elements that make “Daddio” a far more intriguing trip than the initial précis might suggest.

The technical aspects are significant because the piece is essentially a two-hander, originally envisaged for the stage, that one can imagine working just fine on the boards; bringing it to life emotionally depends on the actors, but transforming it into something that’s viable as cinema requires special handling.  If the film doesn’t completely overcome the limitations of a single-set play, the stars and technicians bring sufficient visual variety to the execution that one’s willing to forgive the confined scope.

Actually Hall does “open up” the action in a few instances.  An initial sequence follows the woman played by Johnson traversing the airport to the cab stand, where Penn loads her luggage into the trunk.  When the road is finally cleared of the accident sufficiently to let traffic pass again, the two passengers observe the debris with horror.  And when they reach their destination–the woman’s apartment building—they step onto the sidewalk as her bags are retrieved and exchange some last words.  Not pleasantries, but observations that act to sum up their long conversation. 

And that exchange over the course of their trip, much of it at a standstill, is far from banal.  As is obligatory in works like this, it gradually passes from the trivial to the self-revelatory, with both eventually disclosing intimate details of lives they’re not very proud of.  The woman, a bright and successful business person, is constantly drawn to texts on her phone, and the driver rightly surmises that it’s a man—and not merely a man but an older, married one, and she’s his mistress.  That will lead to the woman’s talking of her childhood, her distant father, and the older sister she lived with and has just returned from visiting.  The driver interprets what he hears like an amateur psychologist.

But his conclusions aren’t drawn merely from her recollections; he reads them through the scrim of his own memories of his two marriages and multiple infidelities, pointing out what he considers to be truths not just about her situation, but about himself, and all men.  By the time they reach the end of the ride, each has come to know the other as a person, and we have come to know them as damaged people with dashed hopes and perhaps futile dreams.  Not completely, of course: much is left unsaid, and speculation often drives things rather than precision (or perhaps honesty).

What’s at work in “Daddio”—the title comes from the woman’s admission that she calls her married lover “Daddy,” something the driver seizes on to push his own semi-macho analysis of her situation—is basically a well-worn theatrical device, based on the revelation of character through dialogue rather than action, which is really the reverse of what we ordinarily expect a film to do.  But it’s a path that an extremely faithful screen adaptation of most plays is pretty much compelled to take.

There is, however, an undercurrent at work here, which arises as much from suggestions in the dialogue as expectations we might harbor from our previous encounters with these two actors.  Recollection of the “Shades” movies—something an astute person generally tries to suppress—could move you to conclude that the unnamed woman here is capable of steeliness as well as submission, while Penn’s very presence can engender a vaguely menacing vibe.  Both actors cunningly play on those expectations as they gradually fill out the characters, or as much of them as we’re allowed to see.  If nothing else, the film offers something like a master class in performance. 

But it’s also a master class of sorts in cinematic technique.  By rights the film should feel claustrophobic, confined mostly to the interior of a cab shot on a soundstage.  But though one can credit production designer Kristi Zea for the convincing look of that interior, through the fluidity of the images Papamichael and Churgin ensure that the setting isn’t oppressively static and dull.  The excellence of the back-screen work, giving the illusion of movement and locale, is also notable, with the occasional inserts of the car moving through the streets adding to the illusion.  Dickon Hinchliffe’s keyboard-based score adds to the mood, but is used sparingly.

Hall’s visually minimalist but emotionally acute debut is an exact reversal of the formula of typical blockbusters, and that proves all to the good.