Emma Westenberg’s Bleeding Love is a moving father-daughter drama that also might just be one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen.
We all have our own demons; we just hope they end with us. Anxiety’s mine: that constant feeling that something has to go wrong and the inability to move on from the slightest mistakes. It’s a plague that affects every aspect of my life and one that I’m unsure if I’ll ever really be able to conquer. It’s a battle, an eternal war that’s constantly being waged in my head, and one that I’m terrified to potentially pass down to my children. Bleeding Love, the newest drama from Dirty Computer (2019) director Emma Westenberg, encapsulates that feeling both beautifully and in the most frightening manner possible. Ultimately, this is a horror film, one that reminds me why exactly I fear having kids. What if they’re just like me?
Bleeding Love follows an unnamed father (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Clara McGregor) on a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their relationship is strained, to say the least, due to the father being absent for the majority of his daughter’s life, and what’s spurred him to try and reconnect is the discovery that she’s recently had an overdose. A recovering addict himself, there are multiple points in the film where it’s obvious that he feels like he’s staring at a mirror, seeing someone he holds incredibly dear go through almost the exact same things he once did. All he wants is for his daughter to be better than him, to do anything but live the life he did. It’s incredibly moving, because that feeling is so universal.
Everyone struggles, and nobody wants their kids to have to struggle in the same way, but what do you do when they do? Every action that the father takes to try and help his daughter seems to not work, seems to push her further down the path, because ultimately, he has no idea what advice to give her. He hasn’t overcome his own demons yet; how is he supposed to help someone else overcome theirs? None of us are ever fully formed humans: that’s just a lie we tell ourselves to make us feel better about constantly feeling inadequate. Yet, we somehow need to balance both our demons with those of our children, so that we can give them the support they need whilst not ignoring ourselves. The father has no idea how to do that, and I just can’t blame him. He’s trying, he really is.
Both McGregors do a great job in the lead roles, Ewan is unsurprisingly brilliant but it was his daughter, Clara, who caught me by surprise. Bleeding Love can be a bit of a mishmash of tones, wanting to simultaneously be a quirky road trip movie that features a series of bizarre side characters as well as a heavy, moving family drama, and Clara manages to give a performance that suits both sides. It’s the kind, tender moments that sell it for me, like the two of them belting along to Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”, the song the movie takes its name from, where it feels like we get to see the actual bond that the father-daughter duo share in real life.
I do think that the quirkier parts of the film are where it struggles most to leave an impact. In its attempts to differentiate itself with the odd strange character or moment, it almost starts to feel a bit too desperate. Nothing about these moments particularly stand out; there’s no interesting thematic element or even a great gag, resulting in quite a few scenes that just feel overly aimless. Quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness. It’s odd, because when the film’s at its most clichéd and focusing on storylines we’ve seen done before, it actually works best. Yes, there’s not a whole lot in this family story that’s overly original, but what’s here is remarkably well done, and by the end, incredibly moving.
Bleeding Love is the one of only a few dramas I’ve watched recently that have made me go away and have a long, long shower where I contemplate every decision I planned to make in the next decade. It’s one of the gentlest horror films you’ll ever see, one that makes you desperate to have kids so that you can share a magical moment with them, but also terrified that you’ll be the one to ruin their life, by accidentally giving them demons that they won’t ever be able to handle. The only thing we can do is be there for them, and try our very best to guide them through the storms we know they’re destined to encounter. For all we know, maybe they’ll be so much better at dealing with it all than we are.
Bleeding Love will be released in select US theaters and on demand on February 16, 2024. In the UK, the film will be screened at the Glasgow Film Festival and then released in cinemas on March 29.