I am really conflicted about this one. There are moments when I wanted to embrace this film and other times when I just wanted to choke the life out of it. Such a conflicted reaction is probably a good film. Some of my favorite films left me feeling this way upon first viewing.
The knocks against Daddy Long Legs are big, things that might usually seal my dislike of a feature. It’s a closely linked to that troublesome upstart genre – mumblecore, but in its defense, its themes are more mature. This isn’t all about twenty-something, trust-fund babies with existential angst and wild libidos. If Daddy Long Legs‘ plot is slightly more grown up its main character certainly is not. Ronald Bronstein (Frownland) plays Lenny, a divorced father who is about as mature as his two grammar school aged boys. Bronstein does a wonderful job depicting a befuddled grown-man caught between the responsibilities of parenthood and his own selfish desires. It is not for a lack of love that Bronstein’s character continually screws up his life, and the life of his kids, but simply put he has never learned how to transition past adolescence.
In this respect, I really champion the film as it takes a rather deep look at a growing archetype in film and television, that of the arrestedly develop male. I am certain such a character has been born of reality and I’m even more certain that these characters, often played by former Saturday Night Live comedians, have influenced the retarded behavior of many men. Daddy Long Legs shows the price, both emotional and economical, that such selfishness takes on those who do not age into new roles.
There is a quote by John Cassavetes that speaks to his film helping people transition past the age of 21. Knowing that the directors of Daddy Long Legs – Ben and Joshua Safdie – have a close association with Cassavetes scholar and champion, Ray Carney it would not surprise me if much of Daddy Long Legs is born of this comment. I could not help but watch Brownstein’s character struggle with tending for his young children without thinking of Peter Falk in A Woman Under the Influence when he is left in charge of his children. Both men simply do not know what to do with their kids, but they know they love them and want to provide, if nothing else, happiness.
Having my own children, though far younger, than the ones in these films I feel a kinship to the frustration of these characters, even the selfish desire to simply return to a simpler time when the only needs I had to care for were my own. I do not know if I would ever have cared as much for Daddy Long Legs as I do, were it not for such personal connections.
At the same time, there are some matters of convenience built into the script as well as a few instance of parental disregard that had me mortified. I am just not sure if my anger stems from the filmmakers taking liberties for dramatic effect or from the idea that a parent would actually do some of the things Brownstein’s character does in the course of the film. So as to not spoil the drama, but to elaborate my point, all I will say is that with just a moment of deeper thought given to the circumstances presented in the film, it is quite clear that the looseness of the films style disguises a script that hinges on some rather pretty well orchestrated and convenient events.
Hiding this fact is a jittery hand-held camera that often hides behind objects catching brief, sometimes beautiful glimpses, of the film’s main actions. This too is heavily reminiscent of Cassavetes, in particular, Faces, but it only works to a point. Like all hand-held camera work it gives you the illusion of being in the immediate vicinity of the action and that there is more going. At the same time, I kept thinking over and over of Tarkovsky and how he accused handheld camera of only getting the surface detail right. In many instances I think that’s what is at play in Daddy Long Legs. At other times, it’s so violently shakey that I felt ill.
Still, when the camera work lands on an images and pause, if ever so briefly, it has a preciousness to it, one that is quite fragile. So much of the film could be defined by that word: fragile. Perhaps, this is its greatest attribute. Could the same teetering sense of a life on the verge of shattering come about with a steady, more stable camera? I’d like to think so, but it might also eradicate much of the energy that ignites so many of the scenes in this picture.
And, there are many scene. One positive thing I can say about the Safdie’s is that they know how to make the most of even the most minor scenes. They are professionals when it comes to cutting right to the heart of a scene. While so many of them are memorable for an array of reasons, my personal favorite had to be seeing Abel Ferrara playing a mugger. While it’s not a huge part of the over-all story. It is a fun little pleasure.
I can’t say the same about the rest of the film, and that’s no knock against it. This film takes a heavy emotional toll. Its both fun and terrifying to watch Bronstein’s fathering and that’s exactly how his kids, played by Sage Ranaldo and Frey Ranaldo react to his behavior. One senses that they love their dad, fear their dad, maybe even pity their dad. It’s a whole mess of conflicting feelings and its is exactly how I feel about the father and even the film.