Monday, September 1, 2014

2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Alex Of Venice ***1/2

[This originally appeared on]

The film ALEX OF VENICE made me think about how we think about films.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE, directed by Chris Messina
I have noticed, more so of late, that most people are eager to stamp a film as belonging to a particular genre, and then in the same breath penalize it for being just another example of that genre. For example, a film will get labeled a British comedy and then criticized for not living up to the standards of good British comedy. But why should a film have to be this, orthat? Why cannot it just be a slice of life. With no aspirations other than that. Is that not enough? ALEX OF VENICE is the sort of film I watched and then wanted to hug afterward. Many will brush it aside as inconsequential, trite even. But I warmed up to it. And later, just believed in it. And you can’t say that about much of cinema these days.

A great deal of the film’s success lies in the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the lead. Winstead, like Shailene Woodley or Brie Larson, has such an honest, open screen presence, that the audience instinctively rallies behind her. To have a protagonist in a film that the viewer automatically roots for is half the battle won. Contrary to expectation, ALEX OF VENICE is not about a man in Italy. Its about a girl named Alex (Winstead) who lives near Venice, California.

Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Publicity still for ALEX OF VENICE
Alex, an attorney at a grassroots organization, returns home from work one evening to be told by her husband (Chris Messina, who also makes his directorial debut with this film) that he has had enough of being the stay at home dad to their ten year old son, and wants out for a while. He is gone the next morning. Which leaves Alex’s life suddenly thrown into a whirlwind. Her father (an unexpectedly wry Don Johnson, who plays a famous former television star, natch) invites Alex’s free-spirit sister (the plucky Katy Nehra, who also shares writing credits) to come stay with them to help things out. As much as Alex struggles to reach a new equilibrium, it stays persistently out of reach. How do you convince a son pining for his father that things may never return to how they used to be? How do we reconcile with our parents’ worsening health, striking the balance between keeping your pride and granting them dignity? How do we negotiate the boundaries of a siblings’ involvement in our lives? Who amongst us has not dealt with all of this. The film deals with these issues with a lightness of hand and even though it tows toward being a mainstream film, it also pulls off being authentic.

Plus how can you find fault with a film that finds roles for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Beth Grant. Chris Messina, who has quietly being creating a fine resume of acting credits (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, ARGO, the underrated 28 HOTEL ROOMS, and many television credits including THE MINDY SHOW), shows remarkable empathy behind the camera as well, and I am eager to see what he helms next. He has already demonstrated uncommon savviness with picking the soulful Mary Elizabeth Winstead to be main player in his directorial debut.

This is a lovely little film.

ALEX OF VENICE screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.

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