Daddy Longlegs (2009) is the triumphant culmination of the Safdie brothers’ early period. By the time the two young prodigies (twenty-four and twenty-two years old) joined forces to make a movie about their childhood memories of their father, Josh and Benny had directed several short films under the aegis of their filmmaking collective, Red Bucket Films. Josh had also completed a seventy-minute feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008). Benny was drawn to slapstick and tangible reality, while Josh was more romantic and given to flights of fancy. Taken together, the Safdie touch is a fragmentary art of wonder: a tireless enthusiasm for the wonders of the world, which the filmmakers respond to with constant inventiveness. Imagination and realism go hand in hand, just as the two brothers move through life, guided by their skill at catalyzing the magic of the moment (“Presto magic!” to quote Lenny Sokol, the father in Daddy Longlegs, speaking like a conjurer). With their first feature as a duo, the brothers continued the lo-fi methods they had developed in their shorts, shooting clandestinely with a group of friends, moving the camera as frantically as their characters moved, and interspersing majestic anti-folk tunes to make us laugh and cry. The opening credits even feel like those of a short film, coming in, incidentally, on the laughter of a guy who has just taken a spill with his foot-long hot dog. This modest, cartoonlike beginning does nothing to prepare us for the simultaneously riotous and terrifying epic we are about to witness.
For Daddy Longlegs was also a step forward for the Safdie brothers—and a big one. Here, they are no longer exclusively in the realm of observation but also that of memory. However, their objective is not to dig up old memories but to share the powerful feeling of otherness they experienced as children through their relationship with an unpredictable father. By casting Ronald Bronstein as the father, the brothers opened up their film to alterity: the director of the influential Frownland (2007), a claustrophobic account of a few challenging days in the life of a tortured door-to-door salesman, is more familiar with the land of anger than that of wonder. Working with Bronstein, also credited as a contributor to the screenplay, helped inspire the Safdies to create a work of dialectic tension. With Daddy Longlegs, the two brothers embraced duality, putting in front of the camera two fathers (their own and the one played by Bronstein) and two young actors who are also brothers (played by Frey and Sage Ranaldo, the sons of multimedia artist Leah Singer and musician Lee Ranaldo, who both also appear in the film). The end title card pays tribute to “the middle perspective,” referring to the dialectic between the father’s point of view and that of the children, and between the children in the film and the children the Safdies once were. This strange tension reaches beyond the potential contradiction between celebration and criticism.
Bronstein would later step out of the fiction to join the brothers in writing and editing their subsequent films. The electro-nightmarish period of Heaven Knows What (2014), Good Time (2017), and Uncut Gems (2019) allowed the Safdie brothers to brilliantly expand their cinematic world, but it would be a mistake to reinterpret Daddy Longlegs in light of those movies. While they continue to feature poetic combinations (the stone traveling inside a fish in Uncut Gems is an equivalent of the salamander hidden in the Lucky Charms in Daddy Longlegs), these later works plunge into the dark and tragicomic empire of obsession: addiction in Heaven Knows What, muleheaded determination in Good Time, the neurosis of double or nothing in Uncut Gems. Instead, Daddy Longlegs takes place in a gap—the gap between childhood and adulthood, past and present, funniness and tragedy, realism and wonder. This ambiguous interval allows the Safdie brothers to open up a space for dreams.
Upon its release, Daddy Longlegs was most often described as the story of a bad father: Lenny, an immature thirtysomething who can’t take care of his kids, despite the fact that he has custody of them only two weeks a year. Yet such moralistic readings are the first thing the film strives to complicate. Yes, there’s nothing to eat in the fridge, and Lenny is egocentric, constantly playing around and making totally impulsive, bad decisions, including risking his children’s lives by giving them sleeping pills. But he also offers a different kind of education—albeit one that occurs in fits and starts, given how quickly he loses his patience with his kids (with a single sweep of the sheets, he makes them disappear and is off to the movies). Not only are his children constantly learning from him, whether he realizes it or not, but he also displays an astonishing pedagogic bent: Like any father, he reveals the tricks of his trade (he’s a projectionist), explaining that the white circles in a film signal the end of a reel. At the natural history museum, he has them focus on details of the dioramas in order to reorient their perspective. He sends them to the supermarket to pick up some herbs, yielding the film’s initial title, Go Get Some Rosemary. The rosemary is more than a detail; it’s the spice of life. The children learn that life is worth living only through play, and that beauty lies in the magic of details. Lenny is his own kind of educator. The kids may end up being raised differently from others, but at least they’ll know the secret of signs. And the Safdies will become the Safdies! Which explains why the film, far from being a warning, exudes gratitude for the father character.
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