If you get away from the tourist hotspots and luxury apartment buildings populated by the elite you’ll find that New York City is filled with men like Lenny Sokol. The protagonist of Daddy Longlegs, the second directorial effort by filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, he’s a divorced, lower middle class parent eking out a desperate living and trying to better himself amid Manhattan’s bright lights.

The Safdies’ quasi-autobiographical picture centers on Lenny’s (Ronald Bronstein) desperate efforts to connect with his sons Sage (Sage Ronaldo) and Frey (Frey Ronaldo) during their two week stay with him. The adolescents cause trouble in the schoolyard and behave hyperactively at home, cajoled along by their discombobulated dad. Lenny works as a projectionist and tries to put his life in order, but finds he’s repeatedly derailed by his impulsiveness and hair-trigger temper.

The movie picks away at the standard, glamorized depictions of the New York lifestyle to arrive at a different, essential truth. Life in the big city can be unrelenting and tough, seeming like an endless tidal wave of cramped apartments, drab city streets and struggles to stay afloat against the fast-paced currents. To thrive in such an environment requires a certain type of meticulous, cutthroat personality and Lenny, no matter how well meaning he might be or how much he loves his kids, just doesn’t have what it takes.

Bronstein and the children affect a convincing naturalistic bond. The former imbues the relationship with the frazzled affections of a father scrambling to put his own failings aside and become the strong, authoritative presence he thinks his children need. Of course, as a neurotic mess with a host of unanswered questions about his own life’s path, he’s in no position to be considered an example. The Safdies and their actors smartly give a brotherly feel to the father-son connection, as Lenny, with every bit as much growing up to do as his children, relates to them not as a parent but as an overgrown, hyper-emotional peer.

The slapdash structure enhances the sense of life unfolding authentically onscreen. The Safdies avoid the hitch of relying on the three-act format, shifting away from a coherently constructed narrative arc. Sudden excursions and unexpected calamities bring Lenny, Sage and Frey together on a fundamental level that strips away the standard trappings of the parent-child divide. They infuse the proceedings with the freewheeling unpredictability of life in such a hectic, tumultuous urban setting.

Despite his obvious failings and mystifyingly poor decision-making, the brothers refuse to cast aspersions on their protagonist. Where a lesser character study might have stressed those misdeeds, their empathetic portrait here draws out Lenny’s vibrant love for his kids and desperate desire to meaningfully affect their lives. His struggle to do so ultimately blends his specific story with the timeless human drive to transcend the past’s limitations, the constraints of circumstance, and to build a better future.

The Upside: The film is an authentic, emotionally affecting depiction of the challenges of fatherhood in New York City. It’s beautifully acted and directed, at once specific and universal.

The Downside: Neil Miller hated it, calling it “soulless.” I guess we disagree.

On the Side: The film premiered at Cannes 2009 under the title Go Get Some Rosemary. It also screened at this year’s Sundance.

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