Sweet, earnest, perfectly-crafted first feature from actor Chris Messina about an LA family in transition. The delicate plot is graced with wonderful performances in all major and minor roles. Low-key and luminous.
Directed by Chris Messina. Screenplay by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton. Not yet seen by Rich. (JLH: 4/5)
“Roger” (Don Johnson) is an LA actor who was once a TV star… but no more. He owns a ramshackle house near Venice Beach, which, like him, is comfy, messy, and a bit past its prime. Also living in the house are Roger’s daughter “Alex” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), her husband “George” (Chris Messina), and their young son “Dakota” (Skylar Gaertner).
Alex and George were teenage sweethearts, and when she got pregnant they stayed together under Roger’s protective wing. But after years of drift George now finds himself facing his 30s and he’s none too pleased about it. So George decides to find out who he is while there is still time.
While George has been running the house and caring for everyone’s needs, Alex has become an environmental lawyer, fighting the good fight with a fervent band of idealists lead by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who is weirdly missing from the IMDb credits). One major plot thread centers on a case, with Alex and her colleagues up against a self-made African-American entrepreneur played by the charismatic Derek Luke.
Alex loves her son, she loves her father, and she loves her husband, but she is constantly on the go and never hands on with any of them. So when George leaves, Roger brings his other daughter “Lily” (Katie Nehra) back home to help pick up the slack, and then off he goes to audition for a part in a new production of The Cherry Orchard.
Everyone stays busy, each in his/her own way, and like most people they ignore the obvious until it becomes clear to all that the old rhythm of their lives has changed forever. Nothing unexpected happens in George’s house; the pleasure comes for living there with them for awhile and coming to value each passing moment.
Chekhov in modern dress? Yes! Writing Don Johnson into The Cherry Orchard cast as “Firs” is a stroke of pure genius.
Screenwriter Jessica Goldberg also wrote and directed an adaptation of her stage play Refuge which had similar qualities. Goldberg and Messina–with their well-matched sensibilities–make a very strong pair!
Middle Photo: “Roger” (Don Johnson) with his grandson “Dakota” (Skylar Gaertner). Is it just a coincidence that Johnson’s real daughter is also named Dakota???
Bottom Photo: “Alex” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and “George” (Chris Messina), still technically together, but already estranged from one another.
Photo Credits: © Melissa Moseley/Screen Media Films
Q: Does Alex of Venice pass the Bechdel Test?
Sisters Alex and Lily have very different personalities and it is clear that they have never been friends and never will be friends. However, they obviously care for one another, and Lily is clearly happy that Alex needs her help… perhaps for the very first time.
We learn the history of the Alex/George relationship primarily through their conversations, but these conversations are not “about George.” They are about Alex moving on and making a new life for herself, plus what to do about their father once it is clear that Roger’s health is growing fragile.
On the other hand, while Jennifer Jason Leigh embodies a strong, tough-minded, inspiring boss, she never has actual “conversations” with Alex (or anyone else). She mostly tells folks what she wants them to do, then counts on them to “make it so.”