At one point during Low Down’s first half, Amy-Jo Albany (Elle Fanning) ventures into the illegal hole-in-the-wall apartment of fellow flophouse dweller Alain (Peter Dinklage) and sits on his bed while he spins a record for her. Even with the unexpected kiss she plants on his lips as she leaves to return to her father, heroin-addicted jazz pianist Joe Albany (John Hawkes), this scene at first seems like an extraneous detour—that is, until she later catches a glimpse of Alain, now painted blue, getting into character for what appears to be a porn-movie shoot. Upon discovering this, she angrily breaks a window before rushing back off to her apartment. Alain, it turns out, is as full of secrets as almost every other adult in her life.
Such devastating moments of shattered innocence are par for the course throughout Jeff Preiss’s directorial debut. Working from Amy-Jo Albany and Topper Lilien’s screen adaptation of Albany’s memoir, Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, the film is less about Joe Albany’s persistent drug struggles as they are about his adolescent daughter’s perception of her father and his troubled adult world. Mostly we see Joe and his similarly drug-addled friends, her alcoholic mother, Sheila (Lena Headey), and other such characters through her point of view. As a result, we get a reasonably vivid sense of how much the adults around her try to shield her from the darkness in their lives, and thus how close she constantly teeters on the edge of a moral abyss hanging around these figures. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt contributes to the doom-laden feel with 16mm cinematography that emphasizes velvet colors, smoky interiors, and the occasional overexposed sunlit Los Angeles exterior.
Preiss is himself a former cinematographer, and the look of this film recalls what he achieved in black and white for Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s documentary about another self-destructive drug-addicted jazz musician, trumpeter Chet Baker. But Preiss appears to have lavished so much attention on achieving his film’s evocative look and naturalistic style that he lost sight of his characters. Dramatically speaking, Low Down never develops any momentum, as the filmmaker seems to approach Amy-Jo’s emotionally bruising coming of age in the spirit of a loose Howard Hawks-style hang-out film, content to simply bask in atmosphere and character interactions, trusting his actors to make sense of these sometimes inexplicable characters. But there’s only so much that Fanning’s vividly expressive face and Hawkes’s charismatic sensitivity can mask before we realize how little we truly understand what goes on in anybody’s head. It’s telling that when, during one emotionally fraught moment for Amy-Jo, her mother relentlessly berates her for a self-loathing streak, this criticism makes no sense to us based on what we’ve seen from her in the film.
In the end, Joe struggles are as inexplicable to us as they most likely are to his daughter. That’s partially by design, considering the film’s genesis from Amy-Jo’s memoir, and as such her point of view. Nevertheless, such yawning psychological chasms suggest why Low Down adds up to little more than yet another drug-addiction tale, bereft of any unique insights that would distinguish this from Round Midnight, Bird, and other jazz-inflected junkie docudramas.