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By Other Voices voices@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Daddy Longlegs

By Kim Voynar

Daddy Longlegs, written and directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, and ostensibly from memories of their own experiences with their father when they were growing up, reminded me a lot of another Sundance film from a couple years ago, Azazel Jacobs’ simultaneously irritating and enchantingMomma’s Man.

Both movies are filmed in a verite style that slams the viewer directly into the experience of the protagonists, and both films feature men who haven’t quite grown up. Consequently, the main characters in both films annoyed the hell out of me,and yet I found the stories around them compelling and fascinating. InMomma’s Man, Mikey (Matt Boren) has come home to his parents’ loft in New York for visit intended to last a few days, which ends up stretching into weeks as he reverts to a weird sort of late-life adolescence, avoiding returning home to the grown-up responsibilities of his wife and infant.

The man-child in question in Daddy Longlegs is Lenny (Ronald Bronstein, who hits every discordant note perfectly), a perpetually distracted, hyperactive, boy in a man’s body who nonetheless has occasional responsibility for the well-being and safety of his two young sons. I have no idea just how autobiographical the screenplay really is, but obviously, the Safdie brothers did manage to survive the time they spent with their dad when they were growing up. As I was cringing through much of the film, though, I began to suspect that if there is such a thing as guardian angels, they most have been working overtime protecting these kids from their father’s endless string of poor decision-making.

What’s most interesting about Daddy Longlegs is the question it posits: What makes a good parent? Is it enough to be fun, to be creative, to make your kids laugh, to play with them as if you are one of them? That can be fine and dandy, sure, but it can also be disastrous, and the Safdies show both sides of being a child dependent on a child-like, irresponsible parent. On the other hand, it could be argued that their time with their dad, so different from the structured, regimented routine of their regular life with their more responsible mother, directly influenced and informed the adults they grew to be. Perhaps they are able to tap wells of creativity and energy that otherwise would have remained dormant without the off-the-wall unpredictability and craziness of their time with their father.

And perhaps the film exaggerates those memories, and it wasn’t quite as insane as what we see onscreen. Lenny, as written for the film, is completely clueless as a parent, however much it’s obvious he adores his sons and loves spending time with them. This is the kind of dad who perhaps would have been more suited to only having to be responsible for the life and safety of young children two evenings a week for a few hours, not two weeks at a time.

This is an inconsistency in the setup of the story that bugged me: the parents obviously live in close enough proximity that they can both make it to their sons’ school, so why wouldn’t they have a more reasonable custody arrangement that would give their dad regular time with his sons without him having to be responsible for them completely for two weeks at a time? And why would the boys’ mother, who’s otherwise portrayed as a responsible, structured parent, allow her sons to be put into such a dangerous, uncontrolled predicament for two weeks at a stretch, apparently without even checking on their well-being?

Because I’m not talking your average questionable decision-making here, I’m talking about a man who can barely take care of himself, much less two young kids, a man who makes a series of questionable parenting choices that finally culminate in a decision that borders on criminal, with a consequence that could be tragic. Lenny drove me so insane that I wanted to turn the film off at times, and I found myself talking to the movie as I watched it, interjecting comments like, “Are you kidding me?” and “Where the hell is their mother while this is going on?” (One of the advantages of watching a Sundance film on screener is that you don’t bother anyone but yourself when you get irritated and start talking to the film while you’re watching it.)

And yet, for all that I couldn’t stand Lenny as a character, I quite liked this film. Sage Ranaldo and Frey Ranaldo, as the two innocents caught in their father’s hurricane of instability, deliver remarkably solid performances (but boy, would I love to see some of the outtakes that didn’t make it onscreen). The film raises thoughtful questions about what it means to be a parent and about the nature of parent-child relationships. Lenny, for all that I viewed him as a dangerously incompetent parent, has his moments of likability and, more to the point, moments of deep connection to his sons; those moments, bookended though they were by the moments of sheer stupidity, showed the value of the father-son relationship, in spite of its flaws and foibles. Can a person be both a good parent and a bad one at the same time? InDaddy Longlegs, the answer is, unequivocally, “yes.”

(Daddy Longlegs is one of three “Sundance Selects” films chosen this year to be a part of a collaborative effort with the Sundance Institute, which made the films available through video-on-demand the same day they premiered at the fest.)

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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