It’ll be a chilly day in hell before John Hawkes gets an Oscar nomination for his work in the cinematic memoir Low Down, given the focus on Michael Keaton for Birdman and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game and so on.
So be it. Low Down is small, with virtually no marketing behind it. It’s also very good. Hawkes breaks your heart as a man struggling with addiction and disappointment. The actor, who first came to wide attention in Winter’s Bone, has so many sure-sighted ways of bringing a flawed character to three-dimensional life onscreen, decades from now his work will be discussed, admired and—with any luck—continuing into its third act.
The movie is an impressive, street-level feature debut from director Jeff Preiss. It’s based on the book Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood, in which Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of jazz pianist Joe Albany, wrote about her risk-prone, caretaking childhood, partially spent in the U.S. and abroad with her father, partially spent with Joe’s mother in Hollywood.
Albany was a longtime heroin addict who died at 63 in New York. The film monkeys with the chronology and events of Amy-Jo’s early teen years, but intelligently. It becomes the story of one girl’s vulnerable upbringing in mid-1970s Hollywood. Elle Fanning does the truest and best acting of her young life in this role. Low Down stays close to Amy-Jo as she watches her father and the harsh world around her through windows, or as she listens at doorways for the next sign of dad’s relapse.
“It’s like God wants to take these guys ’cause they’re so good,” says Albany’s fellow addict, the trumpet player Lester Hobbs, played by Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). He’s speaking of all the jazz casualties undone by heroin. And he’s talking to Albany, the next in line.
Low Down serves as a terrific example of how to evoke a given period on a tight budget. Much of the film, shot on 16 millimeter by the superb cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, takes place in a seedy apartment complex where father and daughter live. The movie’s soundtrack is constantly alive and teeming with jazz greats on vinyl, accompanied by traffic noise and screams from down the hall. Glenn Close plays Gram, Albany’s mother, never without a cig or a passive-aggressive remark. She’s formidable. Lena Headey plays Amy-Jo’s hostile drunk of a disappearing act of a mother. While the writing in her scenes feels less authentic— more like an actress speaking writerly lines than a real-life character—it’s a minor glitch in a tough-minded, empathetic portrait of dreamers on the edge.
Low Down (R): ★★★★✩