Director: Jeff Preiss
Stars: Elle Fanning, John Hawkes
3 (out of 5) Globes
In Jeff Preiss’ “Low Down,” fleabag apartments come off as (to a point) homey —the kind of digs you put up with because you have to. There’s a strange comfort to them, even if you could hypothetically do better. One who definitely could do better is John Hawkes’ Joe Albany, a bona fide musical genius — a bebop pianist extraordinaire and one of the few white musicians to play with Charlie Parker. Albany was also a heroin addict, a prisoner to the disease for what would have been the peak of his career. When he came back, in his 50s during the 1970s, he wasn’t always off the sauce; even when he was you could always sense him thinking about going back on, if he wasn’t already.
The nearly nonjudgmental, mostly sympathetic “Low Down” doesn’t want to be just another junkie saga, although it sometimes is anyway. It’s told from the perspective of his daughter Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning), then a teenager enamored with her father’s gifts, enough so that she didn’t complain (much) about sleeping in a bathtub or occasionally being woken up by her dad and his sketchy friends (including a trumpeter played by Flea, who co-produced) as they play records late at night. Dad is off the skag, and he means to be a good father, but it’s clear he’s not always able to keep his word or do what he knows he needs to do.
There’s no real plot to “Low Down” — just a series of okay times that could always turn sour. It’s a hangout picture, spending time with Joe and Amy-Jo —and Hawkes and Fanning —as they eke by. The director is Jeff Preiss, who knows this beat: He was the cinematographer of “Let’s Get Lost,” the dreamy, sometimes phantasmagoric 1988 documentary portrait of the aging Chet Baker, when his baby-boy looks had, thanks to drugs, turned him prematurely into a creased gargoyle (who nonetheless got the ladies).
“Low Down” isn’t that extreme, but it’s very much a cinematographer’s movie. Preiss doesn’t always have the feel for narrative, but he gets atmosphere and character more than most. The Albanys’ living spaces are warm and musty, places they have to stay in because they have no money to go elsewhere. Whenever they — or the movie — tries to leave, it can’t quite handle what it finds, including dodgy bits involving a sweet-hearted neighbor (Peter Dinklage) with a non-sweet job or her epileptic boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones).
But it gets Joe and Amy-Jo. Fanning is her usual relaxed self, both wise-beyond-her-years and just another, nice teenager. Hawkes —an actor who couldn’t play black or white if his live depended on it — loves working on Albany’s many notes, diddling around with various shades of disappointment, shame and pride. Sometimes he’s pathetic, sometimes he’s Cool Dad, but it never feels like Hawkes is trying. Rather than proving a point or even showing an arc, “Low Down” dwells in a mood and a feeling, one that captures being near a genius who can’t achieve greater success, in part because his body won’t let him —a wouldbe Great Man who had to settle for having his talents overshadowed by his habit.