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Movie Review

Daddy Longlegs

Father is far from knowing best in ‘Daddy’

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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‘Daddy Longlegs’’ isn’t rated. If it were, the letters ought to be a designation not currently in the system: PXP, for “No parent admitted unless accompanied by a physician.’’ Any normal mother or father, seeing how the movie’s protagonist, Lenny, ostensibly supervises his two sons (Sage and Frey Ranaldo), is likely to suffer cardiac arrest.

As Lenny, Ronald Bronstein looks like an elongated Ben Stiller and acts like no one’s idea of a parent. He’s a Paul Mazursky free spirit whose role model is a case of Red Bull. “This is my screw-up,’’ he says to his ex-wife when he arrives late to get the boys after school. “I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks [of custody].’’ What makes Lenny Lenny is that he means it as boast as well as rationalization.

The boys look to be about 8 or 9. When one of their classmates says his bedtime is 8, Lenny takes pride in the fact his kids go to bed at 11. He also has no compunction about leaving them alone at home so he can go out on a date — or, when he realizes he can’t get back from work before they wake up, slipping them a sedative. In his defense, he does first try to get either his girlfriend or a neighbor to stay with them.

Boston University grads Ben and Joshua Safdie, who wrote and directed “Daddy Longlegs,’’ have made a character study of New York’s most perplexing father (loosely based on their growing up). Lenny really does love his sons. Uninterest or dislike would simplify things, actually. The problem comes from his being only marginally more mature than they are. Lenny’s an ADD dad. If his engine revved any higher, he’d get pulled over for speeding just walking down the street. Dialed down a notch, he’d be hilarious. As it is, he’s scary — likable (sort of), but definitely scary.

The Safdies are like the anti-Coens. Where the older pair of brothers belong to the clan of Kubrick, the younger are members of the clan of Cassavetes. “Daddy Longlegs’’ is all jangly and raw. The hand-held camera is almost as much of a presence in the film as Lenny is. He’s all edges and exposed nerves, and so’s the camera. The movie is one long explosion seemingly waiting to happen, and the camera’s the fuse.

The Manhattan of “Daddy Longlegs’’ seems to exist in its own universe. It looks contemporary — except almost no one has a cellphone, revival houses still exist (Lenny works in one as a projectionist), late-model cars have tape players, and Lenny has an LP collection he actually listens to. It’s the ’80s going on tomorrow: “Stranger Than Paradise’’ in a DIY culture.

This sense of unreality can get maddening, especially as regards Lenny. What sensible woman would ever put up with him? What guy would stand for his girlfriend showing up for a trip upstate with Lenny and his boys tagging along? How can Lenny afford his (admittedly shabby) Midtown apartment?

That unreality clashes with the very real emotions that can surface in the movie. The anxiety that frequently crosses the faces of Lenny’s sons tells you all you need to know. The emotion keeps “Daddy Longlegs’’ watchable well after the nervy high of Bronstein’s velocity begins to wear thin (he really is something to see). It also makes everything else in the movie seem too much like a conceit, the stylization of anti-style.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

DADDY LONGLEGS Written and directed by: Ben and Joshua Safdie

Starring: Ronald Bronstein, Sage Ranaldo, Frey Ranaldo

At: the Brattle

Running time: 99 minutes

Unrated (obscenity; casual, unsalacious nudity; unnervingly blithe child-rearing)

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