The great irony of reality TV is that in order for it to be effective, the audience cannot feel sympathy for the people on screen. Whether confined to a tropical island or thirty-second singing audition, reality show participants are boiled down to their unsavory antics and personality flaws. Because they are divorced from the rest of their humanity, we can laugh at their ridiculous faux pas without a tinge of guilt. But to see a real human being screw-up in royal fashion is a much more nerve-racking affair. And this is what precisely unfolds before us in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs.
At the movie’s outset we are introduced to Lenny (played convincingly by Ronald Bronstein), a lanky thirty-something munching on a hot dog as he runs through the busy streets of NYC to an appointment. He falls while attempting to jump a fence, loses his hot dog, and lies in the grass, laughing at his own misfortune. Lenny is so irresistibly exuberant and carefree, you can’t help but laugh with him. But when Lenny gets to elementary school to pick up his boys, Sage and Frey (real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for a two-week visitation, he gets into a verbal spat with the school principal due to a lack of discipline. Everything isn’t so happy-go-lucky in Lenny Land, but he tries his best to keep it that way.
Despite his charms, Lenny is a total space cadet and a thoroughly incompetent father. He loves his kids, but as a buddy rather than a friend. Lenny takes his boys on a trip upstate with a girl he met in a bar, leaves them to play with the photocopier at the movie theater he works at, and sends them to the grocery store on their own. And when you think he can’t screw up any worse, Lenny administers sleeping pills that leave Sage and Frey nearly comatose. Each of Lenny’s mistakes is groan-inducing and stomach-twisting. As the blunders pile up, all you can do is put your head in your hands and sigh. Though Lenny is visibly regretful after each case of negligence, he is somehow unable to learn anything from his mistakes, creating an even more excruciating viewing experience.
You won’t enjoy watching Daddy Longlegs, as it creates the unconscionable urge to jump into the film and give Lenny a Homer Simpson-style strangling. But that doesn’t mean it is a movie to be avoided. There are few movies that push the viewers’ buttons in this way, and even fewer that push them as effectively as this one does. Like in many films that look back on youth, Josh and Benny Safdie imbue the film with a sense of altered memory. Events end abruptly and then cut to a scene many hours later, with things seemingly back to normal. Instead of following a traditional narrative arc, the film moves with the unpredictable rhythms of daily life. The film is an oddly idealized portrait of childhood, not in that it smoothes over the ugly parts, but in how it emphasizes certain moments, stretching time out or deleting it entirely. In Daddy Longlegs, the Safdie brothers have concocted a distinctive film with rare emotional intensity. Of course they’re not the kind of emotions we want when seeing a movie, but that’s what makes the experience all the more visceral. Sometimes we need a movie that isn’t an escape, but rather throws us headlong into the pains of reality.
Daddy Longlegs opens today in Manhattan, and hopefully coming to an indie cinema near you.