Alex of Venice, actor-turned-director Chris Messina’s first feature film, begins with something of a tour de force moment when George (Messina) abruptly leaves his wife, the titular Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner). The series of events that follow this sudden change lead to increasingly difficult circumstances for Alex in a somewhat predictable narrative arc that is at once populated with underdeveloped characters and overwritten dramatic beats. Messina’s film is an admirable effort, one that feels personal and intimate but bears the mark of its director’s and writers’ inexperience.
Alex is a workaholic attorney whose father Roger (Don Johnson) lives with them in their small house. George is a house husband, an occasional painter and surfer who is frustrated by his restraint to his domestic duties. Roger is an increasingly irritating presence, though his smarminess and the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease foreshadow his redemption by film’s end. Upon George’s departure, Alex is forced to juggle her job–defending a case of environmental damage against a constructor–and home life, which proves increasingly difficult, even with the help of Lily (Katie Nehra), her carefree, sparkling sister.
This gender swap between husband and wife is interesting in the early parts of the film, drawing attention to the fact that women are rarely afforded the opportunity in American cinema to rebel against their confinement to the home in the way that George does. Similarly, Lily offers a fresher take on the “cool uncle” character as she guides Dakota through the absence of his father by introducing him to an element sorely missing from his life: fun. But these games with gender representation don’t lead to anything substantial. In the end, George is let off the hook with very little justification, while Alex, having had to shoulder the weight of the story’s judgmental look at her life choices, redeems herself by rising above all the problems caused by their separation.
All these characters are written in archetypal terms, hazily constructed without individuality or the judicious subtlety that distinguishes strong character studies. In both narration and form, the film’s lack of personality undermines its emotional impact; the heart of the story is lost underneath a sea of Instagram filters and clichéd moments of truth. This is a film that conveys Alex’s trouble in finding balance between her work and home duties by showing her incompetency in cooking steaks with the absence of her husband at the barbecue. The moment is quite literally overcooked. Elsewhere, musical or visual cues manipulate the audience for an emotional response. When Alex reaches the final hour at court, as she runs through inspirational lines about future generations and the environment, the film unnecessarily cuts to an image of her son playing gleefully on a Californian beach, yet again in the romantic hues of sunlight and digital filters.
If Alex of Venice doesn’t fail to connect to the audience despite its rote stylistic and narrative approach, it is because of the charming performances of the cast, particularly from the brilliant Winstead. At once a magnetic and unassuming presence, Winstead has been an reliable performer in a string of small films that all fall short of the standard of her work. As has been the case in films such as Smashed and Faults in recent years, her performance is the best part of the film. Her Alex is a delicate creation, accessible because of the genuine energy and vulnerability that she injects into the role. There is a warm familiarity to her, as if the audience is catching up with an old friend. Winstead’s sharp interpretation of the character and her charisma make Alex resonant and extremely tangible. Despite the film’s best efforts in amplifying this emotional connection with audience with generic narrative devices, Winstead makes a mark that is virtually the only memorable element of Alex of Venice after the curtain closes.