Go to the playground in your town’s hippest neighborhood, and you’ll be surrounded by Converse sneakers, cuffed jeans, striped T shirts, and hooded sweatshirts. It won’t be the kids who are dressed this way—it’s the dads. Many fathers today listen to alternative rock, ride skateboards, work slacker jobs, and read comic books, all in an effort to refute the idea that becoming a man means putting away childish things. But all this childlike behavior shouldn’t be confused for irresponsibility when it comes to their kids. The most harmful thing these ever-attentive, hyperengaged fathers do is force their kids to listen to Grizzly Bear.
These dads will likely be appalled by Daddy Longlegs, a portrait of a man who, depending on your point of view, is either remarkably in touch with his inner child or dangerously immature. Lenny has custody of his school-age sons, Sage and Frey, two weeks every year; to their worried, harried mother, that’s two weeks too many. Lenny starts off the yearly visit with a bang: he sasses the school principal, gets into an argument with a homeless man, and, in an inspired bit of clowning, crosses the street walking on his hands.
Life with Lenny means endless tickle fights, sugary cereal for breakfast, late or no bedtime, and impromptu road trips with the girl he picked up in a bar the night before (and her hilariously disgruntled boyfriend). It also means a complete lack of the structure, stability, and limit-setting we’ve come to embrace as the benchmarks of good parenting. There is no bloodshed in Daddy Longlegs, no gratuitous sex or graphic violence. But in its nonjudgmental attitude toward Lenny’s laissez-faire approach to fatherhood in today’s world of helicopter parents, it feels shockingly transgressive.
Daddy Longlegs is based on filmmaker-brothers Benny and Josh Safdie’s own experiences with their father. The use of handheld camera and 16mm film gives it the look of the independent American cinema of the 1970s and ’80s, and the brothers’ view of New York as a city of danger and enchantment feels similarly retro. But, unlike movies from that era that portray children as the wise, self-reliant vehicles for their parents’ personal growth (Kramer vs. Kramer, say, or Author! Author!), Daddy Longlegs shows Sage and Frey’s perspective as much as Lenny’s. At times the boys revel in their dad’s flouting of convention; other times their eyes go big with anxiety. They are as aware as we are that Lenny is not a conventional dad: a glimpse of life at the boys’ mother’s house depicts a much more familiar view of parenting: dinner on the table at six, homework, and piano practice.
The film is difficult to watch, and not just because of the shaky camerawork. A scene where Lenny gives his sons sleeping pills so they won’t wake up while he pulls an all-nighter at work strains credibility: how could a father drug his own kids? (According to the brothers, their father could.) More plausible, and therefore more painful, is a scene where Lenny fights with the boys’ mother on the phone in their presence—at one point he holds out the receiver and tells them to say hi to their mom. But even in this clear breach of parental etiquette, the directors stop short of condemning Lenny: after hanging up, he tears open his shirt, Hulk-like, lampooning his rage to make his boys laugh. This reaction is contrasted in a scene at Sage and Frey’s mother’s house. After sparring with Lenny on the phone, she hangs up, then snaps at one of the boys to finish his homework, taking out her frustrations with his father on him without acknowledging that adults lose their tempers, too.
Clearly, the mother is the only real “adult” in the situation, and the brothers are fortunate to have her as ballast to their father’s capricious nature. But, to be fair, no actual harm befalls them in their time with their dad. Daddy Longlegs may shock you, but it will also make you reexamine your ideas about parenthood, and what it means to be a father.