Daddy Longlegs (2009)
Written by Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
On the Criterion Channel website in an episode of their Meet the Filmmakers series, the Millennial filmmaking duo of Josh and Benny Safdie share a story about their father. When it was time to explain why he and their mother were getting divorced, he sat the boys down and had them watch Kramer vs. Kramer. This informs us to a lot of things about the Safdies like their deep love of New York City centered film and their fixation with well-intentioned characters that keep digging their holes deeper. Daddy Longlegs doesn’t quite have the anxiety-riddled moments of Good Time or Uncut Gems, it is more slice of life. But it’s protagonist, based on the Safdies’ father is just the same sort of protagonist that makes the audience groan as he makes one foolish decision after another.
Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) is a divorced dad who gets custody of his children for only two weeks every year. It quickly becomes clear why his custody is so limited when he picks his two boys, Sage and Frey, up from school. The principal wants to speak with him about one of the boy’s behavior, and Lenny laughs him off, puffing up his chest. As soon as his sons get back to his apartment, Lenny has to engage in oneupmanship with his off-and-on girlfriend, who brings the boys a pet lizard. Through a series of vignettes, we see Lenny grow increasingly self-absorbed and lax in setting boundaries with his kids. The boys are of an age that they begin to see through the “fun” part of Lenny and start to feel the effects of his lack of focus and maturity.
I was struck early on with how obsessed Lenny is with having himself be the only person his kids admire, see-sawing between recklessness and bringing down the disciplinary hammer to get their attention back. ON a trip to upstate New York, the kids are fixated on a water skier, so Lenny breaks into this absurd routine about catching a fish from the boat with his bare hands. He ends up hanging over the edge of the speedboat as it zips across the lake all to get attention back on himself.
Lenny is a complete narcissist and engages in bouts of mania. He has these bouts of wild, raucous fun that to a child seem like the most fantastic thing in the world. A friend brings over to giant bags of candy, and Lenny lets the boys have it for dinner. He laughs off his kids filling a remote control fire truck with urine and spraying it on a babysitter. But then when his Id takes over, Lenny doesn’t have time for his children. He wants to drink and sleep around with women, apparently unable to control his impulses for two weeks. Throughout the film, the kids are left hours late after school, sent to the grocery store with $55 to buy food so Lenny can make dinner (after we see Lenny get mugged at gunpoint on an earlier trip home), kidnapped from their nanny after Lenny lies to her, and drugged to sleep so he can pull an all-nighter at work.
The movie is both a meditation on the Safdies’ father, as well as their invention of events to dramatize the film and a structural ode to the work of John Cassavettes. Many years ago, I did a series on Cassavettes films and came to deeply respect the director. I wasn’t a fan of all his movies, especially his later work, but he is was one of the filmmakers who pioneered the barest of bones of American independent moviemaking. The Safdies use his technique of guerilla filmmaking with lots of shaky handheld shots and filming from across the street, likely without permits to do.
Lenny feels like a Cassavettes man, caught up in his own neuroses over machismo to see the harm he’s doing to the people he claims to love. He learns nothing in the conclusion of the picture, and we can guess he’ll just keep going down this road of spinning in circles, growing further apart from his kids. The children will get older, and his inadequacies and selfishness will become more apparent, and they’ll be no reason to keep visiting him. Lenny is a tragically American male patriarch, unwilling to break away from his long-lasting adolescence to be the father his children need.