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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Movie Review: ‘Low Down’

STARSEEKER.COM Elle Fanning gives a powerful performance in the the unusual coming-of-age drama, "Low Down."
Elle Fanning gives a powerful performance in the the unusual coming-of-age drama, “Low Down.”


“Low Down” is a biopic about a pre-teen girl, Amy-Jo Albany (Elle Fanning), who is the only daughter of troubled jazz artist Joe Albany (John Hawkes). Inspired by Amy-Jo’s memoir by the same name, the film depicts her very strange coming-of-age period in the arts scene of Los Angeles. Following Amy-Jo’s life with her father, who performed with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis before becoming addicted to heroin, the movie includes themes like childhood loneliness, jazz and an artist’s precarious balance between his drug addiction and his career.

The story begins with the father and daughter living in a housing unit mostly occupied by prostitutes, whose activities don’t go unnoticed by the young Amy-Jo. Her father is loving at times and often asks about school, but during his heroin spells he acts crazed and neglectful. Amy-Jo’s estranged mother, Sheila (Lena Headey), is around at the beginning of the movie, hoping to win back Joe. But Sheila’s relationship with Joe and Amy-Joe is strained, becoming largely insignificant and eventually hateful.

We often see Amy-Jo watching her father play jazz in bars. These scenes illustrate how much she loves his music, as she shows pride and interest in watching his piano-playing career. Soft yet constant piano-jazz music plays in the background throughout much of the film, setting the jazz-era tone for viewers.

On one hand, Amy-Jo enjoys her father’s live performances and even his practices at home, often gushing to her friends about his music. On the other hand, her father can’t make ends meet financially in the downward spiral of his career, is in-and-out of jail and commonly ignores his daughter despite sporadic moments of affection. This leaves her constantly alone and frustrated, but it also helps her develop a passion for making her own life.

Ultimately, Amy-Jo must live with her also loving, although not very maternal, grandmother (Glenn Close) when Joe suddenly decides to flee the law and pursue his career in Paris. The generally unrestricted pre-teen girl explores Los Angeles and finds a strange group of friends (and a boyfriend) in a small group of bizarre artists like her father.

The movie begins and ends with short narrations from Amy-Jo, but the in-between is a series of scenes, which jump from one to the next and serve as her memories. Since the chronology of “Low Down” is a collection of snippets, the organization of these scenes can sometimes feel discombobulated. This method successfully recreates Amy-Jo’s childhood perspective by showing the moments she remembers best and skipping the less memorable in-between ones.

Then-15-year-old Fanning delivers an extremely strong performance as the leading female character. The film captures how grown-up this young girl must act with such a nonexistent parental presence. She dresses and carries herself like an adult and shows understanding beyond her young years toward her father’s drug addiction. At the same time, Amy-Jo really does accept her odd life — through loneliness, tears and hope — and never seeks to change her strange situation in any way besides bettering herself. My only criticism of Fanning’s acting would be that it was almost too good to be true, as I wondered whether a 13 or 14-year-old girl could act with such poise and brevity in reality. Nonetheless, these elements gave this up-and-comer a very powerful on-screen presence.

The film includes extremely graphic elements that go far behind Joe’s constant heroin usage. For example, this pre-teen girl kisses her adult, midget neighbor, who is shockingly witnessed filming porn in his basement. She then goes on to date an adult drummer named Cole (Caleb Landry Jones), who is prone to seizures. Most dramatically, Cole suffers two detailed seizures on camera, the second of which happens on a romantic outing with Amy-Jo, who displays her passion and ultimate heartbreak in her failed attempt to help him.

The other actors, particularly Hawkes, deliver fine performances as well. However, the film centers more around the memories and scenes of this phase of Amy-Jo’s life than on the characters’ personalities, so these performances aren’t quite so memorable.

The film offers a very compelling look into both the life of an only child exploring the precarious world of jazz in the 1960s and ’70s as well as the Hollywood artistic scene in general. Bolstered by strong acting, it does a great job of capturing these elements and sharing them with viewers in what is a shocking yet seemingly real biopic. It is not the type of movie to reach a broad audience, but “Low Down” succeeds in telling the unique story it sets out to depict.

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