The Brothers Safdie: New York’s Sundance Kids

PARK CITY, UTAH—At 449 Main Street, about a half-mile from the Egyptian Theater, Entertainment Weekly has set up something of a publicity

PARK CITY, UTAH—At 449 Main Street, about a half-mile from the Egyptian Theater, Entertainment Weekly has set up something of a publicity oasis—all patent leather couches atop faux arctic pelts, with young attractive types in matching flannel and black berets bringing you your double-espresso and bison chili free of charge. On the floor above, they’ve been photographing actors and directors at the Sundance Film Festival since Friday. There’s a wall pinned with the resulting images of opening weekend: Adrien Grenier sticking his head out from under the bottom of the blue backdrop; Oliver Platt mid-monologue; stuff like that. Outside, the paparazzi have been gathering like competing pigeons, ready to jump when, say, Samuel L. Jackson or Naomi Watts walk the eight feet to their idling Expeditions.

It was into this spotlight that brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, the young New York directors of festival darling Daddy Longlegs, arrived yesterday afternoon, Jan. 25—not to even the single shock of a flashbulb. (Though with appetites.)

“This is free food?” Josh asked, once inside.

Josh is the elder Safdie, 25, with a brown beard and wild hair that obeys its part with a grudge. Benny is 23, with softer, darker curls and glasses, and a polyester beard attached to his face with a couple elastic bands. Each of their respective first films (a feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, for Josh; a short, The Acquaintances of Lonely John, for Benny) was screened at Cannes in 2008. Daddy Longlegs, their first film together, had its premier under the title Go Get Some Rosemary at Cannes a year ago (and has found a distributor in IFC), but it is playing under the “Spotlight” rubric at Sundance, ostensibly because it might be the best New York film since The Squid and the Whale, and these cinematic carnival-barkers in Utah oughtn’t miss that.

After their shoot, both brothers (Benny sans beard) and Ronald Bronstein, the actor that plays Lenny—who is a foil for the Safdies’ own father and the focus of the film—sat on one of the patent leather couches and chatted with The Observer over paninis, Caesar salads and cappuccinos. 

Mr. Bronstein—tall, with salt-and-pepper curls, fierce sideburns, and a casual but deep enthusiasm—hadn’t acted before (and is best known for his film Frownland) but is superb in the role. Like The Squid and the Whale, the movie draws heavily on autobiography. It concerns two endearingly loving and deplorable weeks of Lenny’s annual custody of his two boys, and (quoting press materials so as not to give anything away) involves “a trip upstate, visitors from strange lands, a mother, a girlfriend, ‘magic’ blankets, and complete lawlessness.” There’s also a giant mosquito.

“We started with images that meant a lot to us—Lenny with the refrigerator on his back, or whatever—and started just recollecting experiences of our childhood,” said Josh, “and after we met and went through them together, we came up with like a 44-page prose script.” It took nearly a year.

The brothers met Mr. Bronstein—who’s maybe a decade older—at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, and began collaborating almost immediately. Josh and Benny grew up in Queens, and Mr. Bronstein in Long Island; the movie’s set in Manhattan.

In a year when Sundance is attempting to return to its roots—to forego the Hollywood names (if not completely, then in less concentration)—Daddy Longlegs is a perfect example of what the programmers must’ve envisioned. It’s a film that’s dramatic heart is in tune with its cinematic pursuits, and returns the notion of verisimilitude that has been a consequence to the democratization of film (so many digital cameras!) back to the imagination.

“The struggle behind the work is not a commercial one,” said Mr. Bronstein. “We’re more interested in how realism can make you feel than the language of realism itself.”

Daddy Longlegs, which will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Jan. 28—one of eight films in eight cities to be screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival U.S.A.—is hard to watch at times. (At one point Lenny, who is afraid of losing his job, gives his boys a pain killer and induces a temporary coma.) But the brothers had set out to gain an understanding of their past, and to present a very complicated picture of compassion. 

 “I’m not calling my dad a fuck up,” Josh began to say. “But…”

  The Brothers Safdie: New York’s Sundance Kids