Monday, January 25, 2010

Sundance: "Daddy Longlegs"

Seldom has a film worn its aspirations more clearly on its sleeve than Daddy Longlegs, which wants very badly to be the Cassavetes film he never made. It’s shot in an intimate, handheld style, using super-grainy, washed-out 16mm film stock (in sharp contrast to the slick HD and DV of most modern low-budget indies, this one kind of looks like hell) and leaving in clunky zooms and momentary lapses of focus—you know, to make it feel more “natural” and “captured.” The dialogue and scene construction often has an improvisational feel, with overlapping lines frequently muddying up the soundtrack; it’s more about atmosphere and feel than the telling of a specific story anyway. And star Ronald Bronstein is the kind of unconventional leading man that Cassavetes would have embraced; he’s a lived-in character actor in the Falk/Cassel/Gazzara mold.

Throwback pictures like this can be refreshing, particularly for cinephiles that get the references; I like and admire what brother directors Ben and Joshua Safdie are trying to do, even though I’m not sure whether it actually works. Like Cassavetes’ films, Daddy Longlegs is a picture that requires more patience than many viewers might be willing to give it.

Bronstein’s Lenny is a divorced father of two, barely scraping by as a movie theater projectionist. His wife has primary custody, but he gets his boys for two weeks out of the year, and the narrative spans those two weeks, give or take. You’ve met guys like Lenny before: to hear him tell it, he’s always the victim, always falling prey to bad timing and rotten luck and exterior forces conspiring against him, when the fact of the matter is, he’s the common denominator in all of his troubles—his lack of responsibility, and his dearth of good common sense.

The Safdies’ storytelling style and jittery, dirty Gotham aesthetic also calls to mind pictures like Born to Win and Panic in Needle Park, low-key portraits of losers and lowlifes always looking for a hustle. Lenny is very much part of that mold, and as played by Bronstein, he’s got the kind of loping affability that you can see right through—charming for about an hour, infuriating after that. Our tolerance for him, in film time, is about the same; by the second half of the picture, we’ve pretty much lost our patience with him and his steadily more horrifying behavior.

The rest of the performances are fairly uneven (though young brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo, as Lenny’s sons, are rather wonderful), and the Safdies take a couple of strange stylistic turns towards the end of the film. But Daddy Longlegs is clearly a very personal project; it begins with an extended dedication to their father, and it surely can’t be a coincidence that it’s a depiction of this man as seen through the eyes of his two impressionable sons. It’s played so close that there are some amazing moments, when it gets at the kind of candor and naturalism that those Cassavetes pictures sometimes did. They also frequently partook of self-indulgence and dead-end storytelling to get to those moments, and if the Safides brothers had figured out a way to circumvent that element of the formula, they might have really had something here.

"Daddy Longlegs" is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is also available now for Video-on-Demand viewing from several cable providers.

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