Recalling a memorable era in U.S. cinema — the first half of the ’70s — when European attitudes to character and social setting cross-fertilized with solidly American subject matter, “The Day the Ponies Come Back” is a fluidly told story about a young Frenchman’s search for his long-lost father in the South Bronx that’s full of believable, well-etched personalities and builds to a quietly moving close. Helmed with a freshness and inquisitiveness that belies the age of its director, this first feature in 10 years by septuagenarian Jerry Schatzberg is unlikely to make much impact in today’s hard-driven market but should easily recoup its less than $2 million budget from limited release in the right hands and subsequent TV sales.
Shot in New York, but totally funded from France, pic has no distribs as yet. Reception at its Montreal fest showings was positive, skewing more toward mature auds; with no star names attached, pic will need strong critical support to reach a wider public.
Rising young Gallic actor Guillaume Canet, best known internationally for “The Beach,” plays Daniel, a repairer of brass musical instruments, who flies to New York to do a job on some French horns for a business friend, Paul (Tony Lo Bianco). He takes along a piece of paper with a name and address that references an area of his life he’s so far blocked out — the identity of his father, an American who impregnated his French mother and then disappeared back home.
Schatzberg and Robert Cea’s script wastes no time drawing Daniel’s background (his mother isn’t even shown) as the film moves straight to the Big Apple and slips into occasional video inserts as the young man experiences the U.S. for the first time. These brief inserts, which rapidly decrease as Daniel adjusts to the people and surroundings, initially seem fanciful but actually work in dramatic terms, providing a glimpse of the young Gaul’s alienation.
Paul’s family, which includes his daughter, Tilly (a striking Monica Trombetta), and her abusive, bigoted husband, Joey (Nick Sandow), is little preparation for the realities of life in the South Bronx as Daniel looks up the address on his scrap of paper. In the space of a few minutes, a guy tries to steal his camera and a drive-by shooting occurs. Daniel ends up befriended by a streetwise black kid, William (Jay Rivera), and his grandfather, Cecil (Norman Matlock).
William intros Daniel to life in the ‘hood, where hookers service customers behind garbage containers and social inequity is felt at every level. As one character says, “The City doesn’t care, the people don’t care.” Meanwhile, the trail leads Daniel to a seedy landlord, Stoller (Burt Young), who may have vital information about his father’s whereabouts.
Pic’s main weaknesses are a lack of momentum in the middle act and some over-expository dialogue which jars with the movie’s natural flow and well-drawn characters. Latter is especially noticeable in William’s dialogue, which ping-pongs between black street jive and mouthfuls like: “Something about the night makes the garbage clean. What you can’t see, you can’t hate.” Though the tyke has aspirations to be a writer, and rise above his milieu, much of his dialogue simply sounds wrong.
Canet, acting relaxedly in English, is fine as Daniel, without really holding the screen. Once Young eventually appears, the veteran thesp practically takes over the picture, in a wonderfully full-drawn performance as the hard-assed landlord that slowly pays emotional dividends by the end. It’s a peach of a role for Young, and among the best of his career.
Trombetta also makes an impression as the bruised young woman whom Daniel slowly falls for, and Lo Bianco is solid as her understanding father. Sandow’s plughead husband role, which he attacks with glee, is over-cooked by half.
On the budget reported, the movie looks like something four times the price, with Bruno de Keyser’s agile widescreen lensing bringing the locations alive on the big screen and John Hill’s jazz-inflected score supplying invaluable mood and a sense of community warmth. Pic’s title refers to a story which signifies William’s idea of heaven.