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Suppose what we call “parenting” is just a situation in which overgrown kids take care of smaller ones? That’s the underlying premise of Daddy Longlegs—a funny, fantastic, genuinely alarming quasi-autobiographical cheapster by twentysomething New York brothers Josh and Benny Safdie.
The big kid is Lenny (Ronald Bronstein): divorced father, motor-mouthed galoot, and closet sad-sack, introduced ordering a foot-long hot dog and then dropping it on the ground as he attempts to vault a fence in Central Park while stuffing his face. The little kids are an undifferentiated pair of tousle-haired grade-schoolers (actual brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo, sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo) who, left in Lenny’s care for two weeks, accept his overbearing personality and supremely irresponsible child-care skills with remarkable equability. At least he’s always willing to play—except when he isn’t.
Ungainly and manic, crowned with a frizzy shock of hair, Lenny has a physical resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld’s pratfall-prone next-door neighbor—but he’s scarcely a lovable Kramer. This major-league fuckup is so desperately self-absorbed and endlessly self-justifying, he could talk a hole in your head. Apparently modeled on the filmmakers’ father, Lenny is a borderline case even more extreme than Ben Stiller’s Greenberg—that he’s in any sense human is a tribute to Bronstein’s performance. Indeed, Daddy Longlegs, which had its premiere last year in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes as Go Get Some Rosemary (per one of Lenny’s instructions to his sons), is very much a collaboration with Bronstein, himself a filmmaker. (Bronstein’s miserablist comedy Frownland established him as the king of grumblecore—it could also serve as an X-ray of Lenny’s mind.)
Lenny, like Bronstein, is a professional movie projectionist. In one of Daddy Longlegs‘ prize scenes, he attempts and fails to persuade a colleague to take his shift—then has to start the movie, dash to the kids’ school to pick them up, and race back to the rep house where he works before the reel change. Similarly careening from one scene to another, Daddy Longlegs is scarcely less frantic or irresponsible. In the course of caring for his children, Lenny commits crimes that range from doping to kidnapping to spray-painting graffiti. He’s only nailed for the last one, although he’s periodically punished by phone calls from his ex-wife. “This is my screw-up! I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks!” he shouts at her before signing off.
Naturalistically spontaneous, Daddy Longlegs is astute behavioral direction—according to the Safdies, Bronstein never broke character and the kids had no idea of the movie’s overall trajectory. But for all the vérité slam-bang, it’s more a grungy form of magic realism. Day and night are elastic concepts—a nightmarish trip “upstate” is signaled as interminable by partially being filmed during rush-hour dusk, with arrival in the afternoon. The movie is filled with matter-of-factly absurd episodes ranging from Lenny’s barroom pickup to the thousand Xeroxed copies of a crude comic strip that the kids turn into a blizzard outside of Dad’s workplace. The giant mosquito that persecutes Lenny in his dreams seems to have flown to his hovel from the Museum of Natural History. And, hastening down the street with four dripping ice cream cones in hand, Lenny is held up by a gun-toting panhandler—played by Abel Ferrara.
There’s no downtime. Daddy Longlegs has few transitions and many close-ups—the Safdies keep their violently handheld camera close to the action throughout. Totally unmodulated, the movie is a complete, grueling immersion in Lenny’s chaotic world—a kid’s-eye view of what it’s like to live in a constant state of emergency.