It is not an unfamiliar story, to see a wife, abandoned by her selfish husband and struggle to pick up the pieces. But so often it is approached with slapstick humour or full on melodramatic scenes of high emotion and angst, hurtling of kitchenware and unprovoked screaming. ALEX OF VENICE takes this fairly done plot and reinvents it.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Alex, a wife, mother and environmental rights lawyer suddenly abandoned by her husband (portrayed by Chris Messina), sick of being her stay at home ‘househusband’, and has to adapt to and juggle her new life of looking after her dad who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and her son who she knows very little about. Throw in her party-wild sister and you have a real mess. Alex is finding her way, and finding herself in the process.
Winstead is proving to be the queen of indie, and I really and truly am falling deeply in love with her. Unlike the altogether calculating and perverse performance in FAULTS, her role in ALEX OF VENICE is subtle, uncomfortable yet familiar. A somewhat paradoxical character, full of sharps and softs, logic and emotion, Winstead plays every note beautifully. Her story is so familiar, keeping up a front as a form of protection that watching her perform is effortless. This is truly a step beyond good actress territory and into great.
Messina proves to be a solid first time director, understanding the importance and power of focussing Alex in every scene, making her plight not just the sole focus of the film, but an integral story for American women. Playing on a question America has been wrestling with since women’s lib of the seventies. Can Women Have It All?
It seems in ALEX’s answer, yes (after some grafting and some hard internalized questions about herself). This is a really wonderful, honest and kind film, if a little dry in places. I only wish there was some warmth added visually, to pick up on the spirit we see growing in Alex. Her scenes are dominated by sepia toned shots of the usually vibrant and saturated Venice Beach, or night scenes in which everything becomes more sombre or mysterious. Colour and life are only injected when her sister Lily (played by the co-writer Katie Nehra) features on screen, representing fun, freedom and expression. As much as I recognise and admire this tool, I feel it makes Alex seem dull, and lifeless at times, when you really want to her to say “screw this” and grab life by the balls instead she takes tiny steps towards rebellion and reverts backwards. I wanted this film to be entirely triumphant, but it isn’t, and rightly so. As with life, it passes often painfully but with ease.
I will say this, if you like your films with a little more grit and a little less sepia then perhaps steer clear of this one. Don’t expect any conversational tone above that of polite anger. Because, in the midst of all the crazy in Alex’s life, everything is calm. Losing the plot will not help her situation, in life you must simply get on with it. You can only live.
Nevertheless, this film, if you enjoy movies focussed on character stories, and superb acting and story telling it is entirely worth your viewing. With it’s quiet yet affecting impact, ALEX OF VENICE may be a slow burner, but could eventually become a classic in female storytelling.