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Steve Buscemi drew on his Long Island roots for his funny, affecting directorial debut Trees Lounge

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet has us thinking about films by actors turned first-time directors.

Trees Lounge (1996) 
Prior to becoming an indie film superstar and HBO leading man, Long Island-raised actor Steve Buscemi was part of the punk-influenced DIY New York art and theater scenes of the early ’80s, which he participated in while working a series of unusual jobs, including serving as a firefighter in Little Italy for a few years. Buscemi poured all of that life experience—growing up in Valley Stream, hanging out with colorful New York characters, and taking odd gigs to pay the bills—into Trees Lounge, his debut as a feature-length writer-director. (Prior to Trees Lounge, Buscemi wrote and directed the very funny short film “What Happened To Pete.”) In Trees Lounge, Buscemi plays a directionless drunk, who drives an ice cream truck to pay his bar tab, and pursues relationships with a variety of women, including a high school girl played by Chloë Sevigny.

In real life, Buscemi was far more industrious than his Trees Lounge character. (Being an actor/firefighter takes a lot more discipline than being a barfly/ice cream man.) But Buscemi clearly knows this milieu well, from the not-quite-urban/not-quite-suburban netherworld of his Long Island hometown to the dingy joints where all sorts of tough guys and wastrels gather—some just to gawk at each other, and some because that’s where they best belong. Unlike a lot of movies about young men drinking their opportunities away, Trees Lounge is energetic and funny, with the pathetic qualities of Buscemi’s lead character coming off more sympathetic than sad. Like many first-time filmmakers, Buscemi pours a lot of himself into this movie, recalling what it’s like to have so many choices—jobs, romantic partners, lifestyles—and to settle for what seems easiest. 

Availability: Trees Lounge is available on DVD from Lionsgate, and available for streaming from Netflix, Amazon, and other services.