Appellate Judge James A. Stewart believes in the importance of history.
"On March 4, 1957, on the streets of Tel Aviv, Rudolph Kosztner was assassinated for the choices he made while negotiating the rescue of 1,648 Jews on the Kosztner Train."
What if he had lived to grow old, a constant reminder to a son who had witnessed the decision and its aftermath at a very young age? The effects of such a decision years later are the driving force behind Tickling Leo.
At first, Leo seems like a typical family drama about reconnecting with an aging, fragile parent—and it is that. The story starts when Zak gets an invitation from his Uncle Rob (Ronald Guttman, All My Children) and reluctantly heads to his father's lonely, rundown cottage in the Catskills for Yom Kippur. Zak brings his girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse, Law and Order) along. Rob's decision to sell the cottage, which would put Dad (Lawrence Pressman, The Man in the Glass Booth) in a senior home with his dad Emil, and Dad's realization of the secret Delphina's keeping from Zak, force Dad to reveal the family secret which has dominated his life.
The revelation makes the family story into something bigger and, more importantly, makes the historical incident into something personal, considering its implications even today on a family involved in the events in Hungary during World War II. Dad's paranoid and unable to connect with people, relying on illegal drugs to cope with a terrible secret. Rob avoids dealing with it at all, getting defensive when his brother brings the topic up. At first, Zak doesn't want to face it either, but with a little prodding from Delphina he's ready to meet his grandfather for the first time and confront him about his role in a grim historical event.
Lawrence Pressman's performance seems over the top at first, but he gradually reins himself in. This apparently reflects and plays with audience and family perceptions of his troubled character. I wasn't impressed in the beginning, but it created more of an impact by the end of the picture, helping writer/director Jeremy Davidson bring history alive. Performances, including a brief appearance by Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven), are strong throughout.
I did get the feeling the movie was restrained in places by a low budget. Near the end, there's a sad, surreal scene that finds the elderly Dad on a train, imagining himself on the train carrying Jewish survivors out of Hungary, as he heads for New York City to face his own father. This glimpse of Dad's mind is handled excellently, but it led me to suspect that there were a few similar scenes that didn't get filmed. While the low budget allowed Pressman to do more of the heavy lifting dramatically, a few more scenes getting into Dad's mind, especially early on, could have made for a stronger picture. (As a cautionary note, Pressman's bare buttocks make brief appearances in two sequences.)
The Catskills make a beautiful backdrop, and many of the scenes take place outdoors to take advantage of the scenery and the natural light. It makes for some splendid sunsets and evening scenes that contrast with the tight, gloomy scenes of Hungary in brief flashbacks. There were no extras on the screener I received.
Tickling Leo effectively conveys its message about the importance of history on a tight budget, carried by strong acting.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Barn Door Pictures
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