Joe Albany (Hawkes) was a talented jazz pianist who played with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and helped usher in the bebop style of jazz in the Forties, but by the time we meet him at the beginning of Low Down, it’s 1974 and jazz has fallen out of favor. He’s living in a seedy Hollywood flophouse with his 11-year-old daughter, Amy-Jo (Fanning), struggling with a heroin addiction and scraping by on any gig he can find, which means run-down Italian restaurants and dive bars. We experience all this through the perspective of Amy-Jo (the film is based on her memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood), and it is a memorably bleak treatise on the lies we tell ourselves in order to love the beautiful losers we’re stuck with by blood.
Low Down is told in an episodic, elliptic structure where days, months, and years pass in the blink of a cut. Through this lens, we meet Sheila (Headey), Joe’s estranged ex and Amy-Jo’s mother, an acid-tongued alcoholic who briefly reappears in their lives before drunkenly slouching off to the nearest bar. Glenn Close plays Joe’s mother, Gram, who knows her son is lost but can’t help loving him anyway. There’s also Alain (Dinklage), an addict that Amy-Jo briefly falls for, before she discovers his prurient vocation. Don’t forget the hooker who lives next door and the creepy junkie who just wants to use Joe’s room to get a fix.
If all this sounds like so much boilerplate junkie romanticism, it is, but the performances and cinematography lift this film above the gutter it so avidly embraces. Jeff Preiss is a well-known documentary cinematographer and commercial director who, making his feature film debut, opted to shoot the film on 16mm with anthropomorphic lenses, and the results are stunning. (Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt won an award at Sundance.) Low Down looks like some lost artifact from the Seventies, with every location, prop, and article of clothing meshing seamlessly together to create a reality that grounds us into the lives of these characters. Hawkes gives an amazing performance, veering between enthusiastic father and hapless slave to his addiction, and Fanning’s portrayal of the endlessly put-upon Amy-Jo is equally mesmerizing. Low Down is a wonderful downer of a film that fits quite comfortably on the video-store shelf between Barfly and Drugstore Cowboy. That said, depending on your proclivity for plunging into the cinematic depths of despair, your mileage may vary.
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