Friday, July 10, 2020

The Safdie Brothers Began Their Feature Film Careers With Daddy Longlegs

Back at the start of 2020 (you know, in the Before Times), A24 re-released Uncut Gems with a new segment where the films directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, met up with Adam Sandler at a diner and took questions from various celebrities. In 2020, the Safdie Brothers are notable enough figures for Jason Bateman to know their names. But they didn't just appear out of the blue. They have been directing short films since 2005 and directed their first* feature film together with the 2009 production Daddy Longlegs. Though a much scrappier affair than their pair of recent A24 directorial efforts, Daddy Longlegs already carries a number of the defining traits of subsequent Safdie works.

Daddy Longlegs is an autobiographical story based on the experiences Josh and Benny Safdie had with their own divorced father. The focus of Longlegs is not on the children characters, though, it's with divorced dad Lenny (Ronald Bronstein). This projectionist is having trouble juggling his responsibilities as a father to young boys Sage (Sage Ronaldo) and Frey (Frye Ronaldo) with his duties at his work. Lenny isn't just being stretched thin, he's been pushed well beyond his brink of sanity. This leads to him making some regrettable (to put it gently) decisions in regards to handling his kids, including a move meant to zonk out Sage and Frey for a bit that ends up having drastic consequences.

Though Daddy Longlegs is a much scrappier and low-budget affair compared to what's to come in the filmography of Josh and Benny Safdie, the type of protagonists that appear in this duo's work is already fully-formed. Much like Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, Lenny is a cash-strapped guy living in New York City frantically trying to keep the house of cards that is his life from toppling over. The Safdie's work with such anxiety-ridden lead characters that you can practically feel the beads of sweat moving down their forehead. So too is it with Lenny, a guy who is darting around this city just to make sure he has a roof to put over his kids heads.

Lenny isn't quite as compelling as later Safide protagonists played by the likes of Robert Pattinson and Adam Sandler, he's almost like a beta-version of those more complex characters in some respects. But he's still reasonably engaging and I especially liked how Ronald Bronstein plays him as a guy who tries to put on a happy smiling dad person that's bound to crack at any minute. Calmly telling his kids to help him move some boxes can immediately turn into more abrasive yelling at the drop of a hat. This aspect of Bronstein's performance keeps Lenny unpredictable and also vividly reflects how fractured the guys mind is.

The screenplay, penned by the Safdie Brothers and also Bronstein, runs Daddy Longlegs on a series of disappointments for Lenny that feel all too authentic. One new mundane difficulty after another keeps piling up in Lenny's world and it instills a sense of palpable stress that will come to define so much of the work of these two directors. In a contrast to subsequent Safdie Brothers movies, though, Daddy Longlegs has a much bleaker color palette. The bright colors and neon lights that inform the cinematography of Good Time and Uncut Gems aren't found here. Lenny and his kids occupy a world dominated by subdued colors, which lend an appropriately grimy sensibility to the various backdrops.

Less successful is the more ramshackle camerawork and sound work that Daddy Longlegs employs. An attempt to heighten the sense of discomfort in scenes depicting the tormented homelife of Sage and Frey, the execution of this trait in regards to the sound isn't executed as well as it could be. The frequently shakey camerawork was no problem for me but the sound work that renders certain lines of dialogue muffled left me disappointed. The lack of subtitles for the Criterion Channel presentation of Daddy Longlegs only exacerbated this quibble of mine. Even with some iffy sound work, the plight of the lead characters of Daddy Longlegs is still quite palpable in addition to being an intriguing precursor to the likes of Uncut Gems.

* = Josh Safdie directed The Pleasure of Being Robbed all by himself in 2008.

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