Father vs. Daughter: How In a World Rejects the 'Daddy's Little Girl' Cliche

It's one of the first films to show a father and daughter competing against one another professionally.

Seamus Tierney

In a World fits comfortably in that still newish genre of film and television about the quirkiness of "real" relationships. Women are just as likely as men to have no-strings-attached sex and a "man up" attitude about life, and everyone experiences awkwardness, longing, and disappointment. Some of this movie's riffs on social inelegance and discomfort fall flat and feel tired, like some casual "retard" jokes in the very beginning. Still, the larger ruminations on extended adolescence, the way adult children relate to childish parents and, most of all, how grown women relate to their fathers, are often sincere and complex. The relationship the main character, Carol Solomon, has with her father, Sam Soto, feels authentic even when played for laughs. In addition to daddy's girls or reactionary rebels, their relationship seems to say, daughters can be rivals and social peers.

The film opens with a montage of fictional voice actors paying homage to the late Don LaFontaine, a prolific voice actor best known for coining the futuristic, suspenseful phrase, "In a world where ...." Sam, a successful but aging player in the field, has tons of cloyingly respectful things to say about LaFontaine on camera, but in private can barely stand to hear about the "Voice of God." Sam's career has wound down to a Geico commercial here and there and he seems to be up for a little more action, but he ultimately decides to support his protégé, Gustav Warner, a vapid pretty boy whose lifestyle mimics that of true Hollywood stars. Sam's decision to pass the torch to Gustav and campaign for him contrasts starkly with his lack of support for Carol, a 31-year-old aspiring voice actor who still lives at home. Carol dreams of breaking into her father's male-dominated field but Sam repeatedly puts her off of the idea, claiming that the industry (Translation: the world) just doesn't crave a female voice. "If I could break you off a piece of this, I would," Sam says of his own success, before telling Carol she needs to move out immediately, so that his chipper young girlfriend can move in.

Dreams aside, Carol makes money coaching actresses like Eva Longoria in the art of Cockney accents and recording voice-overs. She catches a big break after moving out of Sam's place and quickly books two gigs that Gustav--championed by Sam--was gunning for. Those successes lead Carol to being the favored voice of a highly-anticipated dystopian girl-power quadrilogy starring a Ke$ha- meets- The Warriors Cameron Diaz. (Its feminism-lite slogan? "It's a broad new day.") From there, In a World takes a surprising turn when Sam, after learning about Carol's triumphs, decides to audition for the gig himself.

Carol's decision to compete against her father disrupts typical father-daughter narratives, especially ones that are supposed to be funny. Rebellious fictional daughters tend to follow a predictable story arc that ends with them rejoining the family fold. Contemporary comedies (Father of the Bride, Welcome to America, Meet the Parents) love this theme, but some of the most famous examples appear in Elizabethan comedies, which are meant to end in marriage. In The Merchant of Venice, an overbearing but beleaguered Shylock loses his daughter Jessica (and his money, and his religion) to Lorenzo, with whom she elopes. A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with a wedding ceremony between the once fierce Amazon queen, Hippolyta, to King Theseus of Athens; then, three other high-spirited women--Hermia, Helena, and Titania, queen of the fairies--sort out their own marriages. And everyone knows how The Taming of the Shrew goes. (If not, see 10 Things I Hate About You.) The women in all of these texts test the limits of their fathers' patience but eventually fall in line. Daughters who really surprise us are rare. They have to be willing to shirk paternal oversight--especially when it comes to ambition and sex.

Another class of girls exists that isn't blindly obedient but also invested in harmony with their dads. These stories often feature girls, teens, and younger women who crave acknowledgement instead of social mobility. Take classic books and films like To Kill a Mockingbird, Fly Away Home, My Girl, and even Casper. As happens in In a World, the mothers of these characters are dead and their fathers are incredibly dedicated to their work. Atticus Finch takes on an unpopular case defending a black man against rape charges in Jim Crow South. Thomas Alden is a playful inventor whose newfound parenthood requires a steep learning curve. Harry Sultenfuss is more comfortable with dead people than he is with his keen, sensitive daughter. And James Harvey is another inventor and necrophile who deals with his grief by becoming a workaholic. These characters' daughters establish themselves as mature, growing people by learning from their dads, not by confronting them. Scout Finch learns about integrity in the face of an unjust society. Amy Alden's "treacly" happy ending comes from solving a big problem with her father. Vada Sultenfuss stops blaming herself for her mother and best friend's death by finally discussing death with her dad. And Kat Harvey and her dad get closure after the doctor's project succeeds. More recent films like Somewhere and The Descendants also examine what happens to growing girls raised by work-addled, detached fathers. In all of these cases, even when daughters are adversarial, they inspire their dads to evolve in their personal and professional lives. In most cases, the fathers end up looking pretty noble.

Not so with Sam Soto. Part of the ongoing joke in In a World is that the family business involves a large dose of invisibility. I've certainly been charmed by the voice that precedes my Hulu binges, but voices like that generally remain faceless. In the movie, Sam wants to continue being a gatekeeper of his already limited, often thankless arena; conceding space to his daughter isn't even appealing as a last-ditch attempt at longevity. That bullishness is why Sam can't sweetly evolve like dads in other coming-of-age narratives and must be forced along. Though he's an obnoxiously bad loser whose initial reaction is to run away, hysterically crying, after hearing about his daughter's accomplishment, I almost felt bad for Sam by the end of the film. Up until then, he sees himself as a "sexy, cool" sugar daddy and a judicious father who decides when to giveth and taketh away. Without the power to exert control over his own daughter's private and work lives, he's forced to question his legacy as a man and a father in a changing world.