Thursday, July 15, 2010
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Daddy Longlegs"
Small, ultra-low budget films always have a tough time finding an audience but it’s even tougher during the summer season of Hollywood blockbusters. So it’s great that Reading Cinemas is making room for indie films like “Daddy Longlegs” (opening July 16 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) on its schedule.
For two weeks out of the year, Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) is responsible for his two small sons. But even that short time frame seems taxing for the immature, minimally employed, divorced dad. Take this encounter with the school principal.
Principal: Are you their father?
Principal: Okay then you have some parenting to do.
Lenny: Really? I have some parenting to do? Okay who are you?
Principal: I'm the principal of this school, Mr. Puccio. [Lenny laughs]
Lenny may look like an adult but he certainly doesn’t act like one. Now that can be fun. Like when he walks on his hands down a New York street with his kids in tow. But parental responsibility remains not only out of Lenny’s grasp but rather out of his realm of comprehension. So when he gets called into work he simply assumes his girlfriend will pick up the slack.
Lenny: I don't think you understand. I am going to lose my job and I need somebody hereto watch my kids when they wake up.
Girlfriend: I would love to but I can't. I just can't I gotta work in the morning.
And later when he fails to pick up his kids from school he has a run in with his ex and had only the lamest of excuses.
Lenny: This is my screw up. I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks, you can screw up the rest of the year.
Mom: I don't screw up.
Ronald Bronstein's performance makes Lenny totally believable. We see that he can be fun but he can also be frustrating, infuriating, and even dangerous. In fact, there are times when this film plays like a cautionary horror story as when Lenny gives his kids a watered down sleeping pill so they won’t wake while he’s gone.
Doctor:They are in what’s called stage 4 sleep, it's like practically a coma. But lucky for you they'll probably wake up from it.
Lenny: That means they're good, they're fine.
Doctor: Yeah, they’re not fine. You are so lucky.
Lenny’s inability to realize the danger he has placed his kids in is scary. There are times when his behavior could be labeled abusive or at the very least negligent. So in that respect he’s almost fascinating – like watching a train wreck. But the problem with the film is that the filmmakers seem to think that he’s more endearing than he is.
Filmmaking brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie open their film with a dedication that suggests the film might be about their own father. There’s an intimacy to their portrait of Lenny and a sense of detail that seems to come from firsthand experience. The dedication reveals a certain love and nostalgia for a father who offered “fun as a responsibility, lights on during the daytime, and a fridge full of games.” But after watching this film the mom in me said this man should only be allowed supervised visits with his kids.
Part of the problem is that the filmmakers look to John Cassavetes as their cinematic father, inheriting his penchant for handheld camera, overlapping dialogue, and jump cuts. But they have failed to develop his depth and humanity. In a Cassavetes film, we had seriously flawed individuals and even if we couldn’t muster affection for them we could always see them as painfully human. That humanizing never quite happens with Lenny, and that’s where the film comes up short. We get a well-drawn portrait in terms of detail but no insight into him.
The Safdie brothers are part of mumblecore, and I have yet to be truly impressed by this film movement. Mumblecore filmmakers favor shakycam and muddy images that try to make ugly a style. Their approach also suggests that if nothing happens and it’s boring then it must be real. But mumblecore is proving to be as reliant on conventions as the Hollywood system it claims to be rebelling against. But sometimes they manage to hide their cliches behind the tattered facade of shoe string budgets.
Another thing that differentiates the mumblecore movement from other indie filmmakers is love of cinema. The Safdies make Lenny a film projectionist. Now that would be a romantic job for cinephile filmmakers like Tarantino or Woody Allen. Yet we never sense any affection for film from the Safdies or their character. So the mumblecore disciplines do not seem to come to filmmaking from a passion for cinema but rather from a desire to document themselves. This narcissism is one reason I’ve found it difficult to warm up to the mumblecore movement.
“Daddy Longlegs” serves up a compellingly watchable portrait of a man not quite ready for parenthood or responsibility. Whether you like the film or find it horrific may depend on your parental status.
Companion viewing: "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Koyla," "The Good Father," "Husbands," "A Woman Under the Influence"