Living in Middle America, I sometimes miss seeing films until way after their release. It’s part of my lot in life and I have learned to accept this. Films that appear at festivals sometime don’t get picked up for distribution and are lost in cinematic purgatory. Lucky for me, as well as all of you out there who weren’t lucky enough to make it to Tribeca last April, Chris Messina‘s directorial debut Alex of Venice was picked up and is now about to hit theaters and VOD this weekend. Featuring an absolutely stunning performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead along with a solid supporting cast including Don Johnson, Derek Luke, Katie Nehra and Messina as well, Alex of Venice should be on your radar.
Perhaps the best thing about this film is that the story is one we’ve seen a ton before – a young couple splits because one of them, in this case Alex (Winstead) is shirking her wifely, motherly and daughterly responsibilities because of her devotion to her job (in this case a lwayer for an environmental activism group). Why is this a good thing , you ask? Well, let me tell you…because what happens after the split occurs. The focal point is Alex (as you might guess from the title of the film) and her search for who she is, who she really is. She got pregnant and had a baby when she was 19 with her now husband George (Messina). But something is clearly missing, the fact that she was never able to have the life of a young adult since she was busy being a mother and wife.
When George, who was a stay-at-home dad, leaves, Alex has to step up with her son Dakota (Skyler Gaertner) as well as her aging father (Don Johnson) who might have a touch of Alzheimer’s. Couple all of this with the fact that she has a huge case she is working on for her job and she is in over her head. Lucky for her, her sister Lily (Katie Nehra, also one of the screenwriters of the film) happens to show up just when needed. Lily injects some adrenaline into a stagnant family giving it some life, some good and some bad. As Alex starts getting her feet under her without George around, she unexpectedly starts a fling with the man (Derek Luke) whom she is litigating against in the big case at work. So everything really teeters in the balance with Alex as she tries to figure out who she is now without deep-sixing everyone around her.
As I stated above, this crown jewel of this film is Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s performance as Alex. Pitch perfect, she has really stepped up her game lately. This film comes on the heels of another stunning performance in Faults (see my review here), so we are getting her at what seems to be her best right now, so even keeled and relatable that it’s nearly impossible not to identify with the characters she inhabits. And as good as she is, the other actors in the film were spot-on as well, mainly Don Johnson, who really surprised me in his role as a former TV actor trying to get back in the game by being in a stage production of Chekov‘s The Cherry Orchard. The delicate way he illuminates his character’s struggles with memory loss is impressive. I never thought he had it in him. Likewise, Katie Nehra brings a much needed sense of comedy and carefree nature to a story that hits pretty hard in spots.
I think that one of the strengths of the script is that it doesn’t lollygag when it comes to getting right into the story. George leaves in nearly the opening scene of the film. As the title suggests, this is a film about Alex, so if we had to slog through messy sequences about the decline of the relationship, it would take away from her journey. I think the strongest scene in the film happens when George finally reappears at a time of especially high need for Alex and as their encounter extends into the next day, they both get closure as they officially breaks things off. While that doesn’t seem important at its base, it’s the tender way that it was handled both in the writing and the direction of the scene. It’s little things like these that can make these smaller movies so damn memorable and it seems obvious that all parties were clicking on the same cylinder here.
Alex of Venice is wonderful film and I think there’s something in it for everyone. So instead of trudging out to see films like Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 this weekend, take a chance and check this one out. It is quite delightful.
And speaking of delightful, I was incredibly fortunate to snag a few minutes with Ms. Winstead herself to talk about the film and a few other trifles. Here’s what I felt like I looked like when I was interviewing her:
And here’s what she had to say:
I really liked your chemistry with Katie Nehra as sisters. What was there, if any, as far as a rehearsal schedule? Was it an asset having her in the film with you since she was part of the writing team?
We didn’t have a lot of time together before shooting. I had one rehearsal with Chris and Don and we played some of the scenes. The dynamic [between Katie and I] came about organically. Chris created a great atmosphere on set. The whole experience was incredibly collaborative. The vibe on set was one where everyone had a voice. My ideas were very welcome because of this. I love working that way. I love having the ability to lend my voice.
The affair with Derek Luke’s character struck me as quite odd for Alex. Here she is, totally dedicated to her job enough that she (maybe) neglects her husband, father and son. Would she really take a risk like this, especially if it could cost her her job at a time when she is most vulnerable? It seemed quite impetuous to me. Or do you think that openness of her world without George there alleviated some sort of pressure that had built up in the years they were together after she got pregnant?
I think a lot of her decisions cause her to regress to the time when she was a single person. She was stunted. She got pregnant and never had the chance to become a real person, to grow emotionally. She makes brash decisions which make sense given the circumstances of what she’s gone through. She doesn’t really know who she is.
Did you have any trepidation about working with a first time director in Chris Messina? Obviously he’s an accomplished actor, and I think the film turned out great. Curious what your thoughts were going into production.
I had never met him before, but I was a fan of his as an actor and in that sense, he had a taste level in roles that was high. He comes from theater background and these were all pretty good signs. I was excited about working with an actor. One of the problems of working with directors [that aren’t actors] is that they don’t understand how to work with actors. There’s a different grammar and vocabulary. He and I like to work the same way – make every moment real and authentic so it was a good collaboration.
I was curious about the part where George comes to get Alex after she and Lily have had the fight about Dakota missing school for a week while she’s on ecstasy. At first, I thought what Alex was going through was imagined, part of the trip she was on. That clearly wasn’t the case as the scene played out. Was there ever any discussion about the scene maybe going that way?
That’s interesting. That scene took a lot of different shapes. It was improved in so many different ways. Chris was shouting out different things for me to do and to say. Several shots were made that weren’t used. At one point, Chris shouted at me to start singing something and that’s what I did. I think it turned out perfectly.
This is a perfect segway into another aside, but I really love your record, Got a Girl, that you did with Dan the Automator. You have an unreal voice. I was curious why we aren’t hearing you on the soundtracks to the films you make. I know Brie Larson sang on the Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World soundtrack. I think this is something that we need.
(laughs) Thank you! I would love to do that. We’ll see…
You seem to toe the line between small dramas like this one and more specific genre fare (Final Destination 3, the Die Hard movies, Scott Pilgrim, etc.). Do you feel like you have a home in one area or do you feel like you have to do the moneymakers so you can do the passion projects like Alex of Venice?
I just like to do films that teach me, excite me and I want to work with people that are interesting and that I walk away from each project better than I was before it. I need to inhabit characters that will challenge me. I would love to do more comedy. I’m drawn to characters that have a little bit of everything going on. Be funny one minute and tragic another.
So that’s that. I want to give a big shout out to Mary for taking time to talk to me as I was huddled in my basement during a tornado warning (no joke). I wish her nothing but the best of luck in her career, both acting and in music (please, please make more records – the world needs them).
Be sure to catch Alex of Venice in theaters this weekend. Here’s the list of theaters where it is playing. It will also be available through VOD as well.