Children occupy such a sanctified place in modern society that a film like Daddy Longlegs can't help but shock.
Here is a movie with no graphic violence, no nudity or sexual content, no overt horror elements in the most obvious sense. And yet I repeatedly found myself squirming with discomfort - or sitting in dropped-jaw disbelief - at what I was watching. This is easily the most provocative film I've seen in ages, one that pushed me way out of my comfort zone and yet kept me spellbound throughout.
Written and directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, Daddy Longlegs, opening Friday in limited release and available on VOD, is a semi-autobiographical look at the Safdie brothers' own childhood with their father. In the film, the father's name is Lenny and he's played with a blend of harried self-absorption and surprising charm by Ronald Bronstein.
Lenny is divorced, a projectionist at a movie theater who scrambles to make ends meet - and who, for a couple of weeks every year, has sole custody of his two young sons, Sage and Frey (played by Sage and Frey Renaldo). Aged 9 and 7, the boys are hardly self-sufficient. Yet, when their father is their caregiver, they might just as well be the wards of wolves.
It's not that Lenny is an uncaring father. He seems to love his children and, in a couple of scenes, obviously suffers when he is separated from them. But he is not a natural parent; indeed, he seems not to have a nurturing instinct in his body, nor any sense of what a small child needs.
Indeed, their needs never really seem to come into his thinking. Throughout the film, it comes as a constant surprise to him that he has to be responsible for them. Lenny regularly finds himself caught short when he realizes that he has obligations or urges that prevent him from actually being their caregiver on any given day.
What sets Daddy Longlegs apart from movies that jump off from a similar point - "Kramer vs. Kramer" springs to mind - is that Lenny has no moment of awakening, no epiphany, no realization that, as a parent of small children, his life is no longer just about himself. Lenny never reaches a point in this story when he comes to an understanding that he must put aside his own wants and desires to take care of his sons.
Instead, they are this burden, like a pet that needs to be walked, for whom he's constantly trying to find a solution that doesn't involve him actually giving up his own plans or sacrificing his own time. So he foists them off on anyone he can: a girlfriend, a neighbor, whoever he can importune into watching the kids while he goes to work or goes on a date.
This narcissism reaches a critical point when he realizes he has no one to keep an eye on the boys when he has to work a shift he thought he'd gotten out of. So he gets up early, crushes a sleeping pill and puts it in juice for them to take (he has to wake them to give it to them), then heads off to work, snug in the belief that, hey, they may be home alone but they'll be asleep - so what can happen to them?
That episode and others like it - in which we watch in horror as he does something breathtakingly neglectful, then somehow dodges the bullet of disaster - keep Daddy Longlegs from being your average tale of a dysfunctional family. Most films about this kind of situation are aimed at the gaining of wisdom, whether it is hard-won or not. It's about creating bridges, developing understanding, expanding compassion.
But Daddy Longlegs dares to do it differently. The tension is extreme at several moments when Lenny's heedless disregard for his sons' safety leads the viewer to expect the worst: the revelation of a tragedy as a result of his negligence. But that moment never comes (because, obviously, the Safdies are alive and well enough to have made this film).
Instead, you're left to ponder this unsettling relationship between these children and a father who knows how to be a playmate but seems to have no interest in them otherwise. Instead, Lenny is still chasing the fun in life, still trying to live like a free spirit, even with his children as a full-time responsibility for this two-week period each year.
Bronstein gives a disarming performance, so casually putting his children at risk that it takes you a while to realize just how unplugged this guy is. He's not a monster - and yet, were he performing the same acts without a smile on his face, he would seem so. There's no cruelty here - and yet the obvious potential for great harm is ever present.
Daddy Longlegs is by no means a film for everyone. But it has a realism and a benign approach to moments of terrifying jeopardy that will provoke and shock in ways that a more overt piece of family drama never could.