Chris Messina has been a lynchpin actor in the independent movie scene for years now-Ruby Sparks, Ira and Abby, 28 Hotel Rooms, Away We Go. He’s had parts in big name films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Julie & Julia and Argo and has popped up in television shows such as The Newsroom, The Mindy Project and Six Feet Under and now after being in the mix for so long has turned his sights onto directing, with his first outing being the Mary Elizabeth Winstead led film Alex of Venice premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Alex, played beautifully by Winstead, is a woman who has allowed her career successes to cloud her vision on the on-goings at home and through the haze doesn’t see that her stay at home husband is growing unhappy with their life. After up and leaving her following a breaking point Alex is forced to manage a stressful job, an ailing father, a visiting sister and a son who she’s at a disconnect with. While not groundbreaking cinema it ties together some universal themes that ground the film, making it a relatable and enjoyable watch.
Allowing a female character to drive the film is a fantastic step on its own but allowing the character in question to be complex as well is even more of a greater joy. Typically in a film of similar style, the leading character would be male and the wife would leave for a life of her own and he would have to learn to be stay at home dad as the story demonized the wife who left. This story is rare as it gives the wife and the mother the moment of confliction-the moment where she learns how to balance home and work and what it means to be successful in your late twenties or if it can even be defined.
Some of my favorite moments however came in the smaller ones. The rapport between the two sisters is honest and reflective of the ease that comes with growing up with someone and Winstead and Katie Nehra play it beautifully. It’s refreshing as well to see women in their late twenties who don’t have everything figured out, admit to it and then gradually try to learn from their mistakes.
The film falters whenever it allows itself the indulgence of being heavy handed. Although Don Johnson is given moments to shine, his character often steers the film into maudlin territory and there’s an abundance of metaphors in the play he’s acting in parallel to Alex’s own life that seem unnecessary. The directing is confident, rich and seamless but the script itself should have felt strong enough to not rely heavily on such in your face messages.
Winstead proves to me yet again that she may very well be one of the strongest actors of her generation. She has a knack for picking nuanced characters that don’t fit into what Hollywood has created as typical female roles. She’s strong, she’s vulnerable, she’s willful and passionate as well as second-guessing and doubtful. She soulfully plays a full rounded character that elevates a lacking script.
The film could have used some script edits or story revisions but as a whole it’s a sweet movie, and Messina and Winstead deserve any and all credit that is given to them. It also can’t help but create excitement on the two’s future projects, no matter what they choose.