First-time filmmakers are often a shot in the dark. With a vision unpronounced anywhere but in their head, they ask audiences, and anyone else who will listen, to take a leap of faith. Further, first time actors-turned-helmers carry the added burden of transcending their (hopefully) respected craft for another, usually in the face of daunting skepticism. Nevertheless, veteran character actor Chris Messina vaulted easily past both hurdles for something more than a great debut with Alex of Venice; he made a great movie, period.
One of the best films to bow at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Alex of Venice would initially suggest casual familiarity with its focus on a family in upheaval and transition. But just as the title reflects a place that is less old world canals and gondolas, and more new age boardwalks and Ferris wheels, the movie finds a uniquely quizzical perspective on these timeless themes, overcoming within minutes genre conventions in favor of something startling authentic and infinitely endearing.
The titular Alex, played with great gawky appeal by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is a very deliberate lawyer, environmentalist, and a young mother who has a firm handle on her life. Until she doesn’t. Around the same time that her lived-in, stage-acting father Roger (Don Johnson) is forgetting his lines a little too often for a new play, she also sees her home life crumble overnight when frustrated husband George (Messina) decides he needs to peace out of beachside domesticity. The reason for his departure from this stay-at-home dad existence is left somewhat vague other than he needs a change as he grows older, but Alex is likewise forced to grow into a different person, one who must reflect on her past decisions from getting married at 19 and onwards.
To help Alex balance single motherhood with her suddenly less immediate crusade of protecting Westside marshlands from development, sister Lily (Katie Nehra) flies in to guide young Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) through splitting parents. Plus, she also knows how to encourage Alex to get out there again for new dates, new dresses, and new experiences—like dropping ecstasy.
The strength of Alex of Venice is that Messina deals with issues well known to any family that’s ever weathered a crisis (all of them). This is a point which is wryly made self-aware to the film and its characters when Roger auditions for a local production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a hundred-year-old play about another family that feels lost to the wind, albeit one that is undoubtedly more Russian, and thus unrelentingly depressing. Alex’s more bemused and meta tact allows the film to cultivate a pace of life, lingering in long shots on the peculiarity and humor that can be as implicit in divorce as the sun-baked landscape is in SoCal. It also lets the movie breathe in several strong, career-best performances.
As can be expected when an actor sits behind the camera, Alex of Venice enjoys a performer’s showcase of work from the ensemble, including a mesmerizing Winstead, who explores a new maternal side of her onscreen persona. Alex is an exceedingly fastidious mother who works in the abstract to provide a loving home for her family. She fights the good fight in court because she is determined to make a cleaner world for her son and (long-unborn) grandchildren, and she butts heads with her free-spirited sister, because Lily’s idea of planning is to decide which ride she’ll take her nephew on next while they’re playing hooky. But as Alex’s life swings wildly in opposing directions after George leaves home, she must reevaluate priorities she did not even know existed, an argument that George crystallizes when her first reaction to his absence is “who will cook the steaks tomorrow.” Like the burnt and blackened beef at the next day’s barbecue, Alex’s life might need a new technique.
In many ways, Alex serves as a companion performance to another remarkable turn by Winstead in 2012’s vastly underrated Smashed. At first glance, the characters could not be further apart given how much control Alex enjoys as her family’s breadwinner and anchor, as opposed to a life left ablaze and at the bottom of a flaming cocktail drink. Yet, Winstead’s character in Smashed starts from that empty shot glass when she is forced to reconsider her marriage and choices that led to this woeful alcoholism, and Alex’s responsible tranquility is too burned down, culminating in a hypnotic daze of purple after she is lulled into her first (and likely only) drug experience for the movie’s most humorous sequence. It is a fascinatingly conflicted female character who’s allowed depths and nuances rarely glimpsed in stories told on the big screen anymore, and Winstead savors every moment with some of her best work to date.
However, the aspect of the movie that sticks long after the credits end is a shockingly reinvented Don Johnson. Between Alex of Venice and Cold in July, 2014 may be the year that Johnson began a creative, independent renaissance. By playing an aging actor who has some small celebrity from a “TV show I used to be on,” Johnson and Messina knowingly subvert the image of Miami Vice’s Mr. Cool. As a struggling thespian who never quite broke out, Roger provides a certain unpredictable mania to his daughters and grandson’s world, even before his obvious Alzheimer’s is diagnosed. One of the worst possible diseases imaginable for an actor, Roger’s amiable absent-mindedness perpetually threatens to curtail into tragedy. The movie’s narrative ends before the hard days come to pass, yet as someone who has lived through seeing family members go down that long and agonizing road, Johnson’s appearance in this movie more than hits all the right notes; it hits an abysmal truth. Johnson displays a well of sagacity here that we can only hope will be sipped from more frequently in the future.
Ultimately, Messina’s film, working from a screenplay by Justin Shilton, Katie Nehra, and Jessica Goldberg, is about finding that unexpected warmth from its performers and in its central family. These are characters that audiences should know from other fiction and their own lives—with Nehra notably writing a scene-stealing role for herself as the blithe sister. The satisfaction comes from how fresh it feels in a package that is inherently smart, and through a story that’s executed with a maturity and genuine legitimacy that is all too rare in cinema these days. With any luck, this picture will be the first of many for Messina at the helm.