The Safdie Brothers Hit Sundance (and BAM) with Daddy Long Legs

Every Sunday afternoon, Marjorie Eliot hosts a jazz concert in her Harlem living room. Strangers file in, fill up a few dozen folding chairs, and sit under dim blue lightbulbs as a rotating combo of players improvise the afternoon away.

Filmmaker brothers Benny and Josh Safdie invited me to meet them here and afterward discuss their second feature, Daddy Long Legs, which had its U.S. premiere on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and will make its New York premiere Thursday at BAM. (It's also on nationwide cable VOD—a theatrical release is tentatively planned for later this spring.) Like Josh's acclaimed debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy is a love letter to New York City as anarchic playground, a place where disadvantage and desperation give way to unlikely delight. It's a version of NYC that only currently survives in tiny pockets, such as Marjorie's jazz parlor. Josh and Benny, native Manhattanites born during Reagan's second term, thrive on this essence of semi-old New York, and use their films to bottle and distribute it.

Halfway through the show, Josh signals that it's time to leave. As we march through the bitterly cold January twilight to meet Daddy star Ronald Bronstein at a Greek hole-in-the-wall, Josh grumbles that Marjorie's weekly concert has become a magnet for tourists who treat it like "kitsch." The Safdies are protective of their New York, and wary of ironic appreciation. Their films—their lives—are steeped in nostalgia, but it's not a pose.

Father and sons: Ronald Bronstein with Sage and Frey Ranaldo
Sundance Film Festival/BAMcinématek
Father and sons: Ronald Bronstein with Sage and Frey Ranaldo

With Daddy Long Legs, the brothers get a chance to match personal memories to aesthetics they were born too late to experience. Bronstein plays Lenny, a divorced dad—modeled on the Safdies' own father—who spends two weeks a year with his two young sons (played by Sage and Frey Ranaldo, sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo). Shot vérité-style on grainy 16mm, Daddy's eye-of-the-storm camerawork and Bronstein's brilliantly unpredictable performance combine to create a film that looks like a relic of the late '70s, but feels urgent.

Daddy Long Legs was shot without a traditional script. The Safdies wrote a 44-page short story and then, along with Bronstein, created structured improvisations based on it. This was no loosey-goosey acting exercise. For Bronstein, who had to stay in character through all of his interactions with the Ranaldo boys, the shoot was a hard-core immersion. "They never met me," he says. "Once we built this character, I became a three-dimensional version of him even when the cameras weren't there." The result is a performance that feels uncannily real, even (and perhaps especially) when Lenny's actions are exaggerated.

Josh and Benny are a couple years apart. They finish each other's sentences, and both order grilled cheeses for lunch. Ronald is a decade older, and when he talks, often in long monologues, the Safdies listen. When they first began working together, Benny says, the three "would sit in these diners for 12 hours at a time" talking about the character. With the film finished, the conversation continues—the trio discusses Lenny as if he's an old friend, a particularly problematic one.

They bonded at the SXSW Film Festival in 2007, where Josh was screening a short, and Bronstein unveiled his directorial debut Frownland, an uncompromisingly hyperreal midnight-movie treatment of social paralysis. Bronstein wasn't a performer then, but Josh, "enamored" at the sight of him, imagined a scenario in which Bronstein was a silent film star in need of career resuscitation.

In 2007, Bronstein traveled the film festival circuit with Frownland, which often screened at the same events as Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, an entirely improvised ensemble film led by ingénue Greta Gerwig. Exposed to this kind of "pure-improv-based work" for the first time, Bronstein felt a familiar anxiety: "It was the same thing that had me deep in depression when I was younger, in college. People would go streaking on bicycles naked, but I always felt so constrained. Now I realize, people were using alcohol to lower their inhibitions, but because I didn't drink, I just wondered why I wasn't able to tap into something in myself that would let me interact freely. I felt the same thing seeing Greta Gerwig on the screen."

After much coaxing from the brothers, Bronstein consented to working with the Safdies because he knew they'd give him "a strong platform to jump off." The Safdies stress that they're striving for realism, not the reality-captured-on-camera feel that has become the mark of so-called mumblecore films like Hannah. Though they use improv as part of their process, they rehearse, revise, and refine each idea exhaustively before it makes it onscreen. This structure helped Bronstein overcome his self-consciousness, although he still doesn't like to look at his own image: "I find nothing in life is more stultifying than being conscious of your physical self."

Bronstein says the only Daddy scene he can watch is its nail-biting climax, in which Lenny, unable to love or care for his kids in any sort of traditional fashion, kidnaps his sons and transports them across the border . . . to Queens. For the shellshocked Manhattan grade-schoolers, it might as well be another planet. For the Safdies, it's a dramatization of an actual scene from their family history.

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