In Leon’s Fantasy Cut, first-time writer-directors Josh Caras and Jon Valde play Ukrainian-American brothers whose ambitions exceed their talents. It’s a debut with promise, especially in the leads’ performances, some skillful cinematography and editing, and some pointed humor; further, the film has a point to make about the ways the American Dream has slipped tantalizingly out of reach over the decades. Having made its way through the festival circuit to some excellent reception, including the Audience Award at the 2022 Brooklyn Film Festival, Leon’s Fantasy Cut makes its theatrical debut April 21, 2023 in New York City.
The title might echo, for some, that of one of the most famous student films and audacious debuts ever—Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Spike Lee’s NYU thesis film from 1985 which earned him a slot on PBS and started his illustrious career on its way. It wasn’t the polished work he would create just a few short years later, but it signaled some of the filmmaker’s key themes and tropes he would continue to explore in his later work. Leon’s Fantasy Cut similarly takes its name from the barbershop where some of the action takes place, and while I won’t go so far as to suggest it’s as accomplished as Joe’s nor that it has the potential to take cinematic art in new directions, but it does still suggest some directions for its filmmakers’ futures.
Caras and Valde play a pair of first-generation Ukrainian-American brothers who share a too-small-for-two studio apartment. George (Caras) is a closely-shorn, tightly-wound cellphone-store employee who spends his evenings dreaming up inchoate and unworkable business schemes. He’s sure he’s headed for bigger things, but has few ideas how to get there. Long-haired, shaggy-bearded, motor-mouthed, loose-lipped Iggy (Valde) is a gig-economy hustler with equally big dreams and sadly few prospects, dealing pot and hawking his rap CDs while trying to wedge his foot in the door of bigger productions to come.
Partly because they grew up with parents who escaped a near-intolerable economy in Ukraine for a better life in the U.S., both George and Iggy seem certain that their own capitalist dreams are right around the corner, even though their daily slog though shared-studio-apartment and barely-paying gigs would suggest otherwise. George meets Ella (Ella Rae Peck), a hipster transplant from Connecticut working in a local gallery, and Iggy works with Yuriy (Paul Cooper), a rapper he hopes he can manage to fame. Either or both them just might be a ticket to a better kind of life, if only the brothers can manage their worst impulses under stress.
As George and Iggy, Caras and Valde bring a ton of bro energy to the screen. More, in fact, than might fit in a 99-minute feature. Caras is an acting veteran of more than 20 years and supporting roles in films and series from Boardwalk Empire to Paint. His George can’t help but blurt out his sophomoric political opinions minutes into his first date with Ella, and even though she gives him an unwarranted second chance, his character isn’t the type to develop respect and patience for a woman who expects both from a romantic partner. As Iggy, Valde, in his first feature-film role, brings to the screen a near-infinite slacker energy seemingly out of Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse and borrowing from his own “Schweppes Baguette,” TikTok sketch comedy. One’s affection for the film might well depend on the degree to which one finds either or both brothers charming or exhausting: a case can be made either way.
The narrative depends, as it turns out, a bit more on Peck’s character, as her Ella can both see the charm and call out the crap in both George and Izzy’s characters. Until her arrival onscreen, Leon’s Fantasy Cut is all the two brothers’ masculinist posturing, and her presence provides both a narrative turn and a fresh perspective to the proceedings. But whether her calm and rational presence allows George some actual personal growth or simply frustrates him is another question.
As a low-budget, first-time indie film, Leon’s Fantasy Cut manages some sparkle. Several scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and a few moments are truly tender. The street scenes in and around Brooklyn, all shot in a bright bluish sunlight, convey a sense of optimism despite signs of obvious economic distress. The music tracks from Relyae make a perfect lo-fi accompaniment to the brothers’ foibles. Less effective is the sound design, which struggles to capture audible dialogue in some settings, and the color grading, which is consistently inconsistent. Those, though, are the kinds of challenges first-time filmmakers face when working with limited resources. Overall, the style of the film might be described as something between Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop) and the Safdie Brothers (Uncut Gems).
Leon, by the way, is George’s barber, even though his presence matters little to the film other than to drive one more wedge between the brothers: neatly-groomed George is a regular customer; unshaven, unkempt Iggy is just an object of the barber’s scorn. Still, some other minor characters manage to make a real impact in just limited screen time, especially Jonathan Gordon’s Ezra, a theatrical actor-director whose friendship with Ella threatens George (what doesn’t). The film’s Brooklyn is itself a gallery of rogues and charlatans whose lives intersect with one another in some surprising and some not-so-surprising ways.
What one hopes for with a film like Leon’s Fantasy Cut is that it gets its point across, that it entertains and engages along the way, and that it finds its audience. It’s already accomplished two of those and is on its way to the third, and for a pair of first-time filmmakers with ideas to share and stories to tell, it might just lead to something even bigger and better in the future. In the meantime, Caras and Valde’s feature makes for a telling tale of economic insecurity and second-generation anxieties among the young Brooklyn men the two filmmakers apparently know well.
Leon’s Fantasy Cut premieres April 21, 2023 with a Q&A from the filmmakers at Quad Cinema in New York City.