Every Sunday afternoon, Marjorie Eliot hosts a jazz concert in her Harlem living room. Strangers file in, fill up a few dozen folding chairs, and sit under dim blue light bulbs as a rotating combo of players improvise the afternoon away.

Filmmaker brothers Benny and Josh Safdie have invited me to meet them here and afterwards discuss their second feature, Daddy Long Legs, which had its U.S. premiere on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.  (It appeared simultaneously on nationwide cable VOD — a theatrical release is tentatively for planned later this spring.) Like Josh’s acclaimed debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy is a love letter to New York City as anarchic playground, a place where disadvantage and desperation give way to unlikely delight.

It’s a version of NYC that only currently survives in tiny pockets on the margins, such as Marjorie’s jazz parlor. Josh and Benny, native Manhattanites born during Reagan’s second term, thrive on this essence of semi-old New York, and use their films to bottle and distribute it.

Halfway through the show, Josh signals that it’s time to leave.  As we march through the bitterly cold January twilight to meet Daddy star Ronald Bronstein at a Greek hole in the wall, Josh grumbles that Marjorie’s weekly concert has become a magnet for tourists who treat it like “kitsch.” The Safdies are protective of their New York, and wary of ironic appreciation. Their films — their lives — are steeped in nostalgia, but it’s not a pose. They really mean it.  

With Daddy Long Legs, the brothers get a chance to match personal memories to aesthetics they were born too late to experience. Bronstein plays Lenny, a divorced dad — modeled on the Safdies’ own father — who spends two weeks a year with his two young sons (played by Sage and Frey Ranaldo, sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo). Shot verité-style on grainy 16mm, Daddy’s eye-of-the-storm camera work and Bronstein’s brilliantly unpredictable performance combine to create a film that looks like a relic of the late ’70s, but feels urgent. Daddy Long Legs was shot without a traditional script. The Safdies wrote a 44-page short story and then, along with Bronstein, created structured improvisations based on it. This was no loosey-goosey acting exercise.  For Bronstein, who had to stay in character through all of his interactions with the Ranaldo boys, the shoot was a hard-core immersion.

“They never met me,” he says. “Once we built this character, I became a three-dimensional version of him even when the cameras weren’t there.” The result is a performance that feels uncannily real, even (and perhaps especially) when Lenny’s actions are exaggerated.

Josh and Benny, who are a couple of years apart, finish each other’s sentences and both order grilled cheese for lunch. Ronald is a decade older, and when he talks, often in long monologues, the Safdies listen. When they first began working together, Benny says, the three “would sit in these diners for 12 hours at a time” talking about the character.  With the film finished, the conversation continues — the trio discuss Lenny as if he’s an old friend, a particularly problematic old friend.

They bonded at the SXSW Film Festival in 2007, where Josh was screening a short, and Bronstein unveiled his directorial debut,

Frownland, an uncompromisingly hyperreal midnight-movie treatment of social paralysis. (Frownland and Robbed later screened in L.A. as a double feature at Cinefamily.) Bronstein wasn’t then a performer, but Josh, “enamored” at the sight of him, imagined a scenario in which Bronstein was a silent-film star in need of career resuscitation.

In 2007, Bronstein traveled the film-festival circuit with Frownland, which often screened at the same events as Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, a film entirely improvised by an ensemble led by ingenue Greta Gerwig. Exposed to this kind of “pure improv–based work” for the first time, Bronstein felt a familiar anxiety.

“It was the same thing that had me deep in depression when I was in college,” he says. “People would go streaking on bicycles naked, but I always felt so constrained. Now I realize, people were using alcohol to lower their inhibitions, but because I didn’t drink, I just wondered why I wasn’t able to tap into something in myself that would let me interact freely. I felt the same thing seeing Greta Gerwig on the screen.”

After much coaxing from the brothers, Bronstein agreed to play Lenny because he knew they’d give him “a strong platform to jump off of.” The Safdies stress that they’re striving for realism, not the reality-captured-on-camera feel that’s become the mark of so-called mumblecore films like Hannah. Though they use improv as part of their process, they rehearse, revise and refine each idea exhaustively before it makes it onto the screen.  This structure helped Bronstein overcome his self-consciousness, although he still doesn’t like to look at his own image. “I find nothing in life is more stultifying than being conscious of your physical self.”

The only Daddy scene Bronstein can watch, he adds,  is its nail-biting climax, in which Lenny, unable to love or care for his kids in any sort of traditional fashion, kidnaps his sons and transports them across the border … to Queens. For the shell-shocked grade-schoolers, it might as well be another planet.  For the Safdies, it’s a dramatization of a scene from their family history.

“Dad did wake us up one morning,” Benny says, “and our bunk bed was the only thing that was not packed up.” Josh picks it up from there: “And he was, like, ‘We’ve got to go.’ And I was, like, ‘What about school?’ He was, like, ‘No, no, no. We’ve got to get into the truck.’ And we got into the truck, and we moved to the outskirts of Queens. And our mom got a phone call: ‘Why aren’t the kids at school?’ And she called our dad’s number, and it was rerouted. We were just sitting there in the new apartment, and we plugged the phone in, and the second we plugged it in, it started ringing. It was our mother.” (Amazingly, Daddy producer Tom Scott got the brothers a 10-minute segment on CNN, as firsthand experts on familial kidnapping.)

The next Safdie film, set in Manhattan’s Jewelry District, will also be partially inspired by their father — Benny’s memories of him coming home with cases full of gems dovetail into the brothers’ romanticization of a New York City where the sleaze sparkles. But with few visible signs left of the Manhattan where a 14-year-old Josh roamed 42nd Street trying to get into strip clubs (or where a young Benny once watched two men move his father’s car out of its prime parking space by lifting it), the pair have their radars for romantic sleaze pointed West.  

“I want to live above a fading Buster Keaton mural–adorned grate in Hollywood,” Josh moons. “I want to help scrub the stars with my toothbrush.”

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