When Joel and Ethan Coen debuted Blood Simple at Sundance in 1985, critics unanimously declared the then-unknown brothers a success. 25 years later, another pair of filmmaker siblings took the notorious stars-are-born festival by surprise with a film so raw and stylistically unprecedented that comparisons have become inevitable.
"If Jean Vigo, John Cassavetes, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin had a deformed child, we would be their best friend," say Josh and Ben Safdie, whose film, Daddy Longlegs premieres in New York this Friday, May 14, at the IFC. The two native New Yorkers, who are in their mid-20s, aren't exactly new to the independent film festival scene, but had yet to garner attention from top critics until this past January. The New York Observer called their debut "the best New York film since The Squid and the Whale,"; MTV News compared the directors' style to Jim Jarmusch and John Cassavettes; Slashfilm likened the low-budget feel to early Larry Clark and James Toback. The New Yorker credited the Safdies for having "Wisdom ...rare in filmmakers of any age."
Daddy Longlegs tells the story of Lenny Sokol, a lonely and frustrated filmmaker (although he never seems to work) living in the dim, every-man-for-himself Manhattan one finds in a Paul Auster novel. Lenny is divorced, and his wife has obviously married up (to a character-played by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, in fact). Lenny is granted just two weeks each year to spend with his two elementary school-age sons, Sage and Frey. But the boys' annual stay with their dad this particular year turns into a frantic trip through incompetent parenting and sado-masochism. The Safdies say the film is autobiographical, particularly in the depiction of Sage and Frey's relationship with their father. Lenny is played by Ronald Bronstein, an independent filmmaker himself, whose performance is immersive and neurotic and deserving of praise. Asked what the most important lesson their father taught them was while growing up, Josh says, "Never trust anyone. The world is always out to shit on you, no matter how it presents itself... and that it's OK to laugh in any situation."
The documentary-like feel of the film is largely a result of Safdies' own New York roots: "Growing up in New York City, your sense of space is thrown out of whack, and it's completely unconscious. You feel an ownership of the street and the six feet around you at all times, which often spawns screaming matches and constant littering. It also manifests living in the moment, which is a major influence on our work... the warped moment." Shot entirely with 16mm film, Eastman Kodak's 1923 creation as a cheaper version of the far more popular 35mm format, there is a sense of nostalgia and authenticity well-suited to a story not only set in 1970s Manhattan, but also a cinematic childhood memoir. "We feel that there's a constant obsession to get closer and closer and create the most beautiful and true to life (high in picture quality) picture, when really, storytelling and image producing has no relationship with that," explains Josh.
The Safdies were interested in making the most of their monetary limits: "Our father's observational, yet highly subject, perspective in the height of a moment, with chaos ensuing all around him, was a major influence on our films," says Ben. "[His] ability to get lost in a moment, due to fear of the past and prospect of the...this idea of planning for the future, only to be remembered in the past is something we took from him. Hell, isn't that what filmmaking is?"