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Freedom From the System: Putting the Safdies in Focus

Freedom From the System: Putting the Safdies in Focus

In Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Daddy Longlegs,” filmmaker-turned actor Ronnie Bronstein exudes discomfort in the best of ways. As single father Lenny, he wanders the dirtiest New York City streets and lurks in the shadows of his mangy apartment, alternately grumbling and cackling at his endless misfortunes. Hiding behind a mess of untended curls and constantly searching eyes, Lenny is the ultimate aging slacker, a bohemian loner with no place to hide.

Bronstein’s performance puts a face on the generational bridge inherent to the context of the Safdies’ work. The immovable scowl that crosses his mug recalls John Lurie in “Stranger Than Paradise,” while Lenny’s ongoing frustration turns him into the beast of New York underground angst epitomized by “Mean Streets” and its ilk. The patient, off-key dynamic engendered by his behavior suggests John Cassavetes with a surrealist twist.

Twenty years ago, the Safdies would have fit the perfect mold of breakout indie filmmakers, ideally positioned in an era of low budget movies defined by the search for the next Steven Soderbergh (although they really harken back to early Jim Jarmusch). Back then, however, Josh was six and Benny was four. Now firmly within the realm of young adulthood, the Safdies have already produced a flurry of shorts and two features with their Tribeca-based collective, Red Bucket Films. IFC released their first effort (which Benny co-edited and Josh directed), a near-experimental study in minimalism called “The Pleasure of Being Robbed.” The indie distributor also put “Daddy Longlegs” on its cable VOD platform way back in January (pegged to its Sundance Film Festival screenings), even though the movie hits theaters this week. The latest opening will not make them rich or overnight celebrities, but it provides enough of an outlet to validate their productivity.

Josh (above) and Benny (below) Safdie arrived on stage for the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight world premiere of their new film “Daddy Longlegs” last May. Photo by indieWIRE.

Other young filmmakers engaged in the pursuit of uncommercial storytelling could use a similar boost. Through community alone, the Safdies connect the dots between several eras of independent cinema. Their contemporaries include Henry Joost, co-director of the recent Sundance documentary phenomenon “Catfish,” and Lena Dunham, the rising star behind the acclaimed South by Southwest entry “Tiny Furniture.” Collectively, their shoestring approach to production invites easy comparisons to a gang of past and present DIY collaborators now and forever defined by the tenuous movement known as mumblecore. Bronstein’s own marvelously strange “Frownland” has also been forced into that equation, although like the Safdies’ oeuvre, it simply defies categorization.

Viewing “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Daddy Longlegs” as a distinct package of creative expression reveals their rough, noticeably imperfect but highly consistent vision. The Safdie touch involves a paradoxical arrangement best described as realist fantasy, considering how they match improbable characters with the rhythms of day-to-day life, then dismantle it with utterly loopy plot twists. Embodying the same hapless spirit of his kids, Lenny comes across like a mad scientist whose convictions about fatherhood run wildly counter to virtually any definition of common sense. (Appropriately enough, the movie has some semblance of an autobiographical basis, and begins with a dedication to the filmmakers’ dad.) Using Lenny’s frequent attempts to rationalize bizarre, irresponsible and sometimes even reprehensible parenting decisions, the Safdies dare you to laugh. It often works.

“Daddy Longlegs” displays a more controlled narrative than “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” which offers evidence of their ability to churn along, proving their worth through replication, with only slight alterations along the way. Precedents for this tendency exist in the careers of Harmony Korine (whose “Trash Humpers” opened in New York last weekend) and Gregg Araki (on the verge of premiering “Kaboom” at Cannes), filmmakers with the ability to riff on their sweet spots rather than abandon them for the sake of marketplace concerns. The model remains an important one to maintain in the shadow of innumerable Hollywood aspirants. As producer Mike S. Ryan wrote in a recent Filmmaker magazine piece, “the whole purpose of independent film is to make films that aren’t prefabricated to hit a target audience of someone else’s devising.”

The Safdies and their colleagues don’t make movies empowered by ideological argumentation, but they nonetheless signify freedom from the system — meaning Hollywood, naturally, but also the endless stream of repetitive genre exercises that fill nearly every modern American film festival. Nobody can deny that the industry is in flux, and everyone in it sounds confused or pessimistic about future prospects. The myth of the next Soderbergh died long ago, but ingenuity still matters. Filmmakers like the Safdies possess the audacity to ignore the pressure — or perhaps to defy it with same brazen chutzpah of their latest onscreen creation.

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