At first glance, the laughing, wisecracking, adventure-promoting dad in Daddy Longlegs seems like a parent any kid would love to have.
Nothing fazes him. Not the change spilling from his pockets as he does a handstand on a New York City sidewalk; not the hotdogs that go flying when he climbs a fence in Central Park. Not a mugging or an argument with his girlfriend or a school principal who chastises him in front of his sons.
Actually, that last one does bug him a bit -- but only because Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) gets just a couple of weeks each year with Sage, 9, and Frey, 7. He's so anxious to make those two weeks count that he does a lot of scrambling; Hence the hand-walking, fence-climbing, dusty franks and the rest. Chastisements are off-message, counterproductive.
Beanpole-thin, his mop of frizzed, graying hair tapering to surprisingly robust sideburns, Lenny meets every one of life's roadblocks with a laugh and an instantly improvised Plan B. Definitely keeps life interesting.
But he isn't disciplined, or organized, or even the kind of adult you'd call "together." He's a great pal for his kids, but a less-than-great father, both because his life is such a train wreck and because he kind of likes it that way.
For a time, the boys do too. While he's distracted, they have adventures aplenty -- tormenting a babysitter, say, or drawing pornographic cartoons and printing out hundreds of copies at the theater where Lenny works as projectionist. But if all this seems amusing at first, things take an alarming turn as the real world weighs in, making Lenny's parental incompetence increasingly worrisome. It hardly matters that he adores his kids, if by being only a trifle more responsible than they are, he inadvertently leaves them too unprotected for comfort.
At one point, he's jailed overnight for graffiti-ing a wall near his apartment when he should've been home taking care of the boys. At another, unable to get out of his shift at the movie theater, he slips the kids a sedative so they won't awaken while he's out and worry. We worry, of course, and to Lenny's credit, reckless as he is, he eventually does too.
Filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie based Lenny loosely on their own dad, and the kids (again loosely) on themselves. On the set, cherubs Sage and Frey Ranaldo (sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo) bonded with Bronstein, who apparently stayed in-character whenever they were around. And other characters are played by their real parents, and by hipster hangers-on of various stripes.
The Safdies filmed with handheld cameras, an obvious affection for New York and its denizens, and a script that includes so much structured improvisation that it's hard to imagine any of the dialogue was actually written down. Not surprisingly, the result is a character study with an almost documentary feel to it. Loving, devoted, and as appealing as he is needy, Lenny is real as can be, which makes it all the more unnerving when his reckless behavior puts his boys in peril.