Daddy Longlegs is essential viewing for unpacking both the Safdie Brothers’ work and their approach to capturing humanity on film.
With Uncut Gems garnering much-deserved awards season buzz, it’s the perfect time to rediscover 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, also known as Go Get Some Rosemary, the first official directorial effort credited to Josh and Benny Safdie. In many ways, the film feels like a Rosetta Stone, an invaluable prism through which their filmography can be unpacked.
The throughline from Josh Safdie’s debut feature The Pleasure of Being Robbed (edited by both brothers) to Gems is a series of portraits highlighting confounding creatures of questionable habits, of self-destructive individuals whose behavior isolates the viewer without shunting off an avenue towards empathy. From the kleptomaniac of Robbed to the drug addict of Heaven Knows What to the sociopath bank robber of Good Time, the Safdies have a gift for centering their narratives on protagonists who make terrible, repetitive decisions.
But it’s the patriarch at the heart of Daddy Longlegs who presents perhaps the clearest antecedent to Gems’ gambling addicted Howard. Future Safdies co-writer Ronald Bronstein plays Lenny, a divorced projectionist in (where else?) New York who gets two weeks to spend with his two young sons. Lenny is a loving father who clearly enjoys being with his kids and possesses a chaotic and playful streak they seem to adore. But he is also woefully inept at certain necessary elements of parenthood.
For every tender scene where Lenny acts out elaborate pranks and bits on the NYC streets with his kids there’s an equally off-putting sequence where he fails at some of the basics, being late to pick them up from school and getting into shouting matches with their principal. The tragedy of the film is how the same impulses that make him such an endearing father who can engage his sons on their same youthful level are what cause him to put them in literal danger at every turn.
Whether it’s the conflict with his on again, off again girlfriend who wants more of a stepmom role in their life or him poorly juggling his erratic work schedule with his temporary custody, it’s clear that these two weeks are but a painful microcosm of what Lenny as a full-time parent would look like. Presaging the heart stopping tension the Safdies would go on to master in later films, they do an incredible job of slowly raising the stakes of Lenny’s shortcomings.
At first, he just seems a little quirky, the sort of Not-Great-But-Lovable dad that’s populated movies of all genres. But after ingratiating himself into a road trip with a one night stand and her boyfriend (that he brings the kids along to!) it becomes obvious that there’s no real limit to how bad Lenny’s decision making can go.
By the time he’s microdosing the boys with sleeping pills so he can work an overnight shift without a babysitter that puts them both in a two day long coma, we see the larger picture at play, that it takes more than just love and fun to be a good parent. But rather than take Lenny to task, as would be easy in this case, the Safdies, working through their own childhoods and wrestling with the image of their own father, find a way to capture their own trauma without just indicting the man who helped raise them.
It’s a complicated love letter rife with contradictions, but it makes every other film they’ve made make perfect sense. There’s an amazing moment where Lenny is working a reel to reel projector during a show and explaining to the boys how to watch for the cigarette burn in the frame to time out the reel change. This sincerely realized moment fosters the same kind of love for analog film formats that Chris Nolan and Quentin Tarantino profess on the daily, but it is tinged with anxiety and stress, with Lenny flitting callously between engendering a love of cinema in his children with immediately, childishly lashing out at them for not properly complying. The scene feels like an intimate snapshot, a shorthand origin story for the Safdies as cinematic storytellers.
They’ve only grown more potent at their craft since, but Daddy Longlegs is essential viewing for unpacking both their work and their approach to capturing humanity on film.