Tickling Leo -- Film Review

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Inspired by a true World War II event, "Tickling Leo," about a cross-generational New York Jewish family dealing with its Holocaust past, was a family effort offscreen: Writer/debuting director Jeremy Davidson is married to actress Mary Stuart Masterson, who produced the film with her Barn Door Pictures partners Peter C.B. Masterson, her brother and the film's cinematographer, and longtime collaborator Steven Weisman.

"Leo" looks and sounds remarkably polished for its mere two-week shoot mainly in New York's Catskill Mountains. The film also is blessed with fine direction and acting (Daniel Sauli, Eli Wallach and Ronald Guttman are standouts). It also is awash in calendar-pretty settings, as DP Masterson leverages the magnificent fall landscapes to the max. "Leo" should satisfy serious older filmgoers, even if it suffers from wobbly storytelling.

The tale begins around Yom Kippur, with New Yorker Zak Pikler (Sauli), 33, and girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) traveling upstate to the Catskills to check up on Zak's estranged father, Warren (Lawrence Pressman), an eccentric poet whose memory flashes and erratic behavior betray some kind of deterioration and troubled past.

Zak is tipped off to his reclusive father's descent by his Uncle Rob (Guttman), who, with third wife Madeline (Victoria Clark), soon joins the pair at Warren's secluded hideaway. As happens in family dramas, unpleasant truths emerge.

Zak and his father continue to be at serious odds, just as Warren has long ignored his own father, Emil (Wallach), who resides in "Jerusalem," which happens to be a New York old-age home. Uncle Rob emerges as an especially gruff character, given to cursing, acting like the good-time big shot, but finally forced to confess he's bankrupt and must sell the property where Warren resides.

Delphina briefly flees the bickering for a local pub, where she meets a contemporary of Emil's, who hints at wartime secrets the two share. Back at the house, news of the encounter again stirs Warren's troubling memories, and he steals away to New York to confront his father.

With the family members reunited at the old-age home, a tragic history unfolds about how the Piklers escaped Hungary late in the war. The film's big reveal of what led to so much poisonous silence within the family is inspired by a historical event.

But the script is too tentative regarding who knew what, did what and why. Viewers also might balk at how oddly Pressman's Warren swings from dementia to clarity and might exit confused by the obscure title. But director Davidson still shines with this modest production.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 4