In their quest to make a film about the perils of parenthood and childhood, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie couldn’t have found a more perfect father figure cipher in Ronald Bronstein, the gangly, graying dad in Daddy Longlegs, which the brothers wrote and directed. It’s undoubtedly a personal film, delving into memories that are likely both painful and pleasant, or maybe somewhere in between.
The result is a film teeming with energy, as we witness both the disarming charm and the mind-boggling density of Bronstein’s Lenny, a man trying to make the most of his limited visiting rights with young sons Sage and Frey (the nicely naturalistic Sage and Frey Ranaldo). The mostly handheld 16mm camera work lends a jostled immediacy to the film’s New York locations, but it’s Bronstein’s physical kineticism that demands attention — balancing three dripping ice cream cones in his arms alongside a bag of groceries, waking his kids with a well-placed body slam, stomping some roadside trash in a fit of frustration.
Bronstein’s impulsive brain is laid plain in his jerky physicality, and it quickly becomes clear that his qualifications as a guardian of young children are dubious. Shortly after picking up his kids for the brief few weeks they get together every year, he imposes himself and the kids on a one-night-stand’s upstate getaway with her boyfriend. This is perhaps one of his most clear-headed decisions of the film.
His behavior ranges from the ill-advised — sending the kids walking to the grocery store on their own, wad of cash in hand — to the inexcusable — giving small doses of sleeping meds to the boys so he can work an all-night shift as a projectionist, which works out about as well as you’d expect. It would be reasonable to dismiss Lenny from the outset, but Bronstein’s ragged charm and childlike intentions make him easy to root for while remaining absolutely ambivalent about his character.
The film often possesses a hermetic, fantasy-like quality that suggests its events are thematically rooted in gripping, perhaps misremembered childhood memories. It’s not an idyllic fantasy — with a protagonist like Lenny, how could it be? — but there’s a genuine sense of dread-tinged wonder that informs the film and its perspective on the harrowing adventure of fatherhood.
The film, which premiered at Cannes in 2009, finally makes its way to DVD courtesy of a nice edition released by Kimstim by way of Zeitgeist. Extras include a header that played before theatrical screenings featuring home movie footage of the Safdies and their father, 16 minutes of deleted scenes and rehearsal footage from the Ranaldos’ first meeting with Bronstein. The disc also features a loosely assembled collection of behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer for the film’s Cannes premiere and a section labeled “promo junk,” which includes some wryly unorthodox advertisements for the film, like a short cartoon where the brothers explain their film to the uncouth denizens of a dumpy hotel and a sandwich board viral campaign.