“Mickey and the Bear” reps an assured feature debut for Annabelle Attanasio, who wrote and directed this straightforward but skillfully nuanced drama about a troubled father-daughter relationship. Camila Morrone plays the titular motherless small-town Montana teen who needs to decide if what she wants from life is more than just being the minder of her PTSD-afflicted father, an Iraq war veteran.
There’s nothing wildly original in form or content to this modest tale. But it’s never obvious or melodramatic, delivering a satisfying degree of emotional resonance while providing James Badge Dale an arresting role as the problematic dad.
Though we don’t get this intel until fairly late, Mickey’s mother died of cancer — like, apparently, quite a number of people do in Anaconda, Mont. (a town that had a longtime mineral-processing plant generating hazardous waste). Ever since that unspecified point in time, Mickey, an only child, has been housekeeper, babysitter and toehold on reality for pa Hank (Dale), an ex-Marine. He’s unemployed, unstable and unwilling most of the time to play the part of parent. Really, their dynamic is reversed: It’s Mickey who has to bail her errant-child father out of jail each time he gets into a drunken fight; maintain their trailer home; moderate his oxy intake; and pay any bills not covered by his veteran’s benefits with her part-time job at a taxidermist’s.
She does have a social life, notably with boyfriend Aron (Ben Rosenfield). But he’d be all too happy to steer her into pregnancy and marriage before high school graduation, like her best friend Beth (Katee Ferguson), and Mickey isn’t sure that future would be a significant improvement over being stuck as dad’s caretaker.
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Just turning 18, she’s encouraged to think outside those boxes by Dr. Watkins (Rebecca Henderson), a sympathetic VA psychiatrist aware of Hank’s case. Mickey also senses some liberating potential in the presence of new classmate Wyatt (Calvin Demba), a handsome Brit emigre who sparks mutual romantic interest. And unlike Aron, he doesn’t manifest it in a strictly one-track mind.
Mickey has been thinking quite a bit about what to do next, going so far as to apply to a college very far from home. Still, any such move would have to be weighed against the impact on Hank, who’s often volatile, exasperating and ungrateful. But he’s also very poorly equipped to manage without her.
While there are some confrontations, and a couple key plot turns, “Mickey and the Bear” mostly builds its drama in an accumulation of small moments rather than major events. It’s tightly woven nonetheless, with a brisk pace that still has room for non-stereotypical local color and the kind of open spaces in the backstory that assumes a viewer doesn’t need every last character detail spelled out for them.
Newcomer Morrone (whose only notable prior roles were in Augustine Frizzell’s indie comedy “Never Goin’ Back” and the “Death Wish” remake last year) ably carries the film on her shoulders as a girl who’s not quite jaded but has already seen perhaps a little too much of life for her age. The supporting performances are solid.
But the critical player here is Dale, who makes Hank alternately frightening and pathetic, harmless and self-harming, his mood swings arbitrary even beyond the effects of the substance he’s last abused. His problems aren’t going to get better, and ultimately our heroine must choose whether she’ll let him sink alone or feel obligated to sacrifice her own life to provide support. It’s to Dale’s credit that such a poor parental figure should earn our wary empathy; at moments, we can even glimpse the cocky charmer that must have won Mickey’s ma.
Shot on location, the film benefits considerably from the Montana setting in DP Conor Murphy’s lensing. Other packaging elements are also astute, with some interesting, flavorful soundtrack choices; this isn’t a movie that takes for granted everyone in Big Sky country would listen to country music.