On paper, Tickling Leo is about the Jewish tradition in America and the lingering aftershocks of the Holocaust, and, in particular, how the real-life "Sophie's Choice" story of the Kasztner Train, which shuttled a selection of Hungarian Jews to safety, impacted generations of emigrants. However, at its heart, the stark and poignantly small (even by indie standards) film is about the insane, illogical ties of family and the secrets that fester and inevitably distance people from the bonds they crave the most.
Thirtysomething urbanite Zak Pikler (United 93's Daniel Sauli) is a picture of nervous, beset reticence from the opening scene as he neurotically frolics in the park with fiancée Delphina (Law & Order's Annie Parisse), shriveling upon receiving an uncle's call bemoaning the state of Zak's estranged father. Reluctantly, Zak drives up to rural New York to find dad Warren (Lawrence Pressman) in a half-naked psychotic fit, screaming about the Mossad while hurling furniture at his hapless son and companion. While it soon becomes clear that Warren is mad north-by-northwest, it's also apparent that something is supremely rotten in the Pikler clan. With the aforementioned uncle Robbie dropping in unexpectedly, the Piklers casually toss off inappropriate comments, belittle each other with élan, and revive decades-old accusations of betrayal and abandonment, dancing around a 50-year-old mystery that holds fearful revelations for everyone involved.
It's writer/director Jeremy Davidson's debut behind the camera, and the character actor exhibits a knack for drawing the most from his performers. There are tiny touches, such as the newly minted landlord of the father's place, a minor player in his only scene, abandoned in a cavernous room, eyeing the family's discarded pizza, that add an abyss of emotional depth, a paradoxically warm, dank spirit. The acting is magnificent across-the-board, as the characters glance at one another with repressed rage, fevered disappointment, and isolated longing. Davidson further proves himself at home both in city and country, giving a 1980s Woody Allen-style gravitas to the NYC concrete jungle, before deftly setting the suffocating angst against the open bucolic splendor.
Even at the end, when the wheels come off the plot a tad as Davidson tries to wrap up too many storylines into way too neat a package, Eli Wallach's stirring cameo as a wisecracking and stoic, yet dementedly narcissistic Pikler patriarch, a spectacularly flawed war hero, ties the scene together. While Tickling Leo remains a determinedly minor film, it dredges up a universal theme of fathers and sons and the travails of those who love them from a unique and thoughtful angle, and packs an unlikely feast of edge-of-your-seat thrills for an indie talkfest as Pressman's Warren endeavors to confront his demons as aging rapidly eats away at his mind and body.
Tickling Leo on AllMovie
Tickling Leo (2009)