Review: Low Down (Sundance 2014)
PLOT:A young girl (Elle Fanning) tries to survive a tough upbringing in seventies era-Hollywood under the care of her heroin-addicted Jazz pianist father (John Hawkes).
REVIEW:LOW DOWN is based on the true-story of Amy Albany, who watched her father, famed jazz pianist Joe Albany, succumb to addiction throughout her early life. Certainly one of the bleaker films to play at Sundance this year, LOW DOWN is also one of the strongest, featuring superb performances by the two leads- Hawkes and Fanning.
Shot in grainy 16mm, giving this a seedy worn out look that’s entirely appropriate given the subject, LOW DOWN is harrowing stuff. The Hollywood on display here is not the typical Tinseltown of the movies. Here, Joe and his daughter Amy live in a cheap residential hotel that could be situated right smack-dab in the middle of the boulevard of broken dreams. A talented pianist in his day, Joe- as played by Hawkes- is such a junkie that all his instruments are long-pawned. In and out of jails and asylums, Joe shoots up between his toes to keep his parole officer from knowing he still has the habit, while his daughter goes back and forth from his place to her more stable grandmother’s- played by Glenn Close.
Despite his faults, Joe’s still a likable, good-hearted man. His daughter adores him, and when he’s not high, he’s portrayed as a relatively good father, lavishing attention and love on her. The film is all told from Amy’s point of view, and it’s unique in that as Amy gets older, Joe’s tricks that he uses to keep her from knowing he’s a junkiestart to lose their effectiveness, as she starts to realize the depths of his addictions and flirt with them herself.
Both Hawkes and Fanning are incredible. Hawkes has been on a run of good films lately, and this is another winner. Watching Hawkes here, it’s hard not to be reminded of De Niro in his prime, and his juggling act- keeping Joe from being too pathetic or unlikable- is especially effective. The later scenes are Hawkes’ strongest, such as when- after being deported from a gig in Europe- he tries to get his life back together while reacquainting himself with his now older and wiser daughter. He’s especially good opposite Caleb Landry Jones, who plays a young, wounded rock musician Amy falls in love with- perhaps seeing some of her father in him. The best scene between the two is when Jones suffers a seizure, and Hawkes lovingly tries to keep him from hurting himself, while trying to comfort his hysterical daughter.
As good as Hawkes is, this is Fanning’s film, with her virtually on-screen every moment, with the story is told through her eyes. She’s growing into a wonderful teen actress, and her chemistry with Hawkes is superb. This is a grittier performance than we’ve come to expect from Fanning, and she’s top notch. The supporting cast is also strong, with Lena Headey as Amy’s jazz-singer mom- gone to seed before her time due to a battle with the bottle. Glenn Close has a strong part as Hawkes’ adoring, but disapproving mother, who becomes Amy’s surrogate mother figure, with none other than Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers) shows up as Joe’s best friend and fellow addict. The only part of the film that seems off is a subplot about Fanning’s infatuation with a local artist/ pornographic actor, played by Peter Dinklage, who lives in the hotel furnace room. Dinklage is always good, but the odd plot is dumped midway through, without really resolving itself.That aside, LOW DOWN is a pretty great film, albeit a really depressing one. Director Jeff Preiss- a former documentarian- shoots the movie in a gritty, no-nonsense way, making this one of the most harrowing depictions of addiction since REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. It’s a heavy film, but also a very strong one.