Review: ‘Italian Studies,’ starring Vanessa Kirby

January 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Vanessa Kirby in “Italian Studies” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Italian Studies”

Directed by Adam Leon

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in London, the dramatic film “Italian Studies” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A British woman, who’s a book author with amnesia, wanders around New York City and tries to befriend a group of teenagers who are complete strangers to her. 

Culture Audience: “Italian Studies” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching meandering films that don’t have much of a plot.

Simon Brickner in “Italian Studies” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Italian Studies” is a misguided stream-of-consciousness drama about amnesia. Too bad the filmmakers forgot to make it an interesting movie. “Italian Studies” is an annoying and repetitive bore that’s trying desperately to be “artsy” and “meaningful,” but the movie ultimately isn’t very creative, and it has nothing to say.

Written and directed by Adam Leon, “Italian Studios” is essentially a 78-minute film where actress Vanessa Kirby plays a character who walks around and acts confused in New York City and briefly in London. In the movie, Kirby portrays a book author named Alina Reynolds, a Brit who has amnesia and no identification on her.

Don’t expect the movie to reveal how Alina got amnesia. Alina doesn’t find out her name until about halfway through the film, but she doesn’t do what most people with amnesia would do if they found out their names: Use that information to find out more about herself, where she lives, and if she has any loved ones who are looking for her.

Instead, the movie wastes a lot of time showing Alina, who is in her 30s, being fixated on hanging out with teenagers who are complete strangers to her. The teens, who are between 15 to 18 years old, are all part of a loosely knit social circle in New York City. Most of them are played by non-professional actors and most of the teenage characters in the movie don’t have names.

Some sections of “Italian Studies” try to go for a vibe that’s similar to Larry Clark’s 1995 teen movie “Kids,” by having several scenes of the teens partying and talking about their lives. The teenagers in “Italian Studies” aren’t as hedonistic as the ones in “Kids,” but they have the same concerns that a lot of teenagers do about finding their identities and where they can get acceptance from other people. Unfortunately, almost all of the teen characters in “Italian Studies” (including Maya Hawke in a small role as a character named Erin McCloud) are forgettable and don’t have distinct personalities. Expect to see these rambling teen scenes go nowhere in “Italian Studies.”

“Italian Studies” also has many scenes that drag out the repetition of showing Alina’s amnesia without her doing much to find out who she is. Before she finds out what her name is, Alina remembers that she was staying at a motel and the room number. She goes to the motel and asks the front-desk clerk (played by Sam Soghor) to give her a spare key to her room because she lost the key. When the clerk asks for her name, she says that she can’t remember, and she doesn’t have any ID on her.

Not surprisingly, the clerk gets suspicious and doesn’t give her the room key. Alina gets irritated that he won’t just hand over the key, which is an indication that not only has she lost her memory, she’s also lost her common sense. This is obviously a motel that doesn’t ask for photo IDs when people check in to get a room, which is why the motel has no record that her identify was verified before they gave her a room. Even if the motel has this lenient check-in policy, Alina should still know that motels don’t just hand out keys to anyone who asks, so her entitled attitude is not justified at all.

There’s another time-wasting sequence about Alina having a white poodle that she left outside on the street and tied to street post when she went into a convenience store. When she left the convenience store, she forgot to take the poodle with her. It isn’t until an untold number of days later that Alina remembers that she had a dog, and she tries to find it. For anyone who’s not interested in seeing this movie, the good news is that she eventually finds the dog, which was being kept at the convenience store.

“Italian Studies” has some random moments that look like they were put in the movie as filler. While walking on a street in New York City, Alina passes by two young Hasidic Jewish men (played by Misha Brooks and Luca Scoppetta-Stern), who repeatedly ask her, “Are you Jewish?” She answers, “I don’t know.”

In other scene, Alina steals some candy from a convenience store, because she’s hungry and has no money. Not once is she shown making any realistic attempt to find out who she is, or even try to get substantial help in finding out her identity. (This movie takes place in the 21st century, when the Internet and cell phones exist.) Most people with amnesia would seek help, in order not to reach a point of desperation where they have to steal food because they have no money.

A moment that looks “only in a movie” phony is how Alina meets a teenage stoner named Simon Brickner, played by an actor with the same name. They’re in a fast-food place that sells hot dogs. Simon asks Alina if she can buy some of the hot dogs that he recently purchased there. He explains that he used a credit card to buy the hot dogs, and the place has a minimum monetary amount required to use a credit card. Therefore, Simon bought more hot dogs than he can eat, so he wants to resell them.

Alina declines the offer because she’s already eating her own hot dog. (It can be assumed she had a little bit of cash with her, because later in the movie she’s run out of money and steals candy for food.) Alina then tells Simon that she’s actually a vegetarian. Simon asks her why she’s eating a hot dog if she’s a vegetarian. She replies, “I’m taking a break.”

During this conversation, Simon asks if Alina wants to hang out with him. She says yes with no hesitation, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world for a person in her 30s with amnesia to not care about finding out who she is, and hang out and party with a teenager instead. The scenes with Simon and Alina are boring and very self-indulgent.

Viewers learn more about Simon than Alina in this movie. He’s a motormouth 18-year-old who’s not very smart and doesn’t know what to do with his life. He lives with his parents, he has no job, and he has no plans to go to college. Simon likes to smoke a lot of marijuana, which he shares with Alina. Simon keeps his marijuana stash hidden inside a book at a local library, because he says that his mother searches his room.

According to Simon, his parents think that Simon is a loser, and he despises his father, whom Simon calls “an asshole.” Simon also has a younger sister. (His family is not seen in the movie.) Later, there’s a cringeworthy part of “Italian Studies” where Alina makes out with Simon. It just shows that not only as she lost her memory and any common sense, she’s also lost good judgment.

The only reason why Alina eventually finds out her name and occupation is because a woman approaches her on the street and gushes to her about how much of a fan she is of her collection of short stories called “Italian Studies.” The adoring fan also tells Alina that she saw Alina doing a reading of “Italian Studies” two years ago. Because of this conversation, Alina finds out that she’s a successful author, and “Italian Studies” is her first book.

And so, off Alina goes to a library to find her “Italian Studies” book and to see if it could lead to more clues about her identity. It’s at the library that she finds out her name, but the movie is so stupid that it leaves out something that anyone with amnesia would do: Look at the part of the book that lists the author’s biography information.

The movie shows that the book is dedicated to two people named Ade and Richard, but Alina just ignores that information too. She also doesn’t think about contacting the book publisher, which is information that’s also listed. Instead, Alina wants to autograph the book.

Another library patron (played by Joshua Astrachan), who’s sitting at the same table, sees Alina writing in the book, and he tells her that she shouldn’t be doing that. She replies with indignation that she wrote “Italian Studies,” and then tries to shame him for daring to question who she is and why she’s writing in the book. It’s one of many indications of how Alina—amnesiac or not—is an unpleasant and somewhat arrogant person. Alina haughtily tells the man before she leaves the library in a huff: “You’re a cold world. A signed book is a warm world.”

More tiresome and incoherent scenes ensue as Alina hangs out with Simon and his group of acquaintances and friends. She finds out from some of the teens that her next book that she was working on before she got amnesia was going to be a novel about teenagers, so she was interviewing real teenagers as research. She decides to continue this research by interviewing Simon and his friends, who know that she has amnesia, but they don’t seem to care much at all. When one of the teens tells Alina that it isn’t very original to write a young-adult novel about teenage issues, Alina has this obnoxious reply: “Go fuck yourself!”

One of these teens in Simon’s social circle is a talented singer named Lucinda (played by Annabel Hoffman), and Alina becomes fascinated with her. After Alina sees Lucinda singing at a party, she starts showing up at places where Lucinda sings, such as a nightclub and a recording studio. Alina tries to befriend Lucinda, who is a little confused over why this older woman, who’s a stranger, is paying so much attention to her.

Alina tells Lucinda that she thinks Lucinda is very talented. Lucinda’s reaction to Alina is polite caution. Alina also keeps asking Lucinda’s friends for more information about Lucinda, and where Lucinda is if Lucinda isn’t there. It’s all very stalkerish, but none of this creepy behavior is questioned by anyone in the movie.

In fact, it seems like none of the filmmakers questioned the half-baked, irritating and pointless scenes that pollute this entire movie. As the amnesiac Alina, Kirby is hindered by playing such a vague, prickly and unrelatable character. It’s difficult to root for this protagonist. The acting in this movie is not very impressive.

To make matters worse, the dialogue in “Italian Studios” is atrocious and often very unbelievable. The end of “Italian Studies” abruptly throws in a scene that shows if Alina found any of her loved ones or not. But by the time this final scene stumbles into the movie, most viewers will have emotionally checked out and not care at all.

Magnolia Pictures released “Italian Studies” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The World to Come,’ starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott and Casey Affleck

February 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston in “The World to Come” (Photo by Toni Salabasev/Bleecker Street)

“The World to Come”

Directed by Mona Fastvold

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in 1856, in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, the dramatic film “The World to Come” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two farmers’ wives have a secret love affair with each other while unhappily married to their husbands.

Culture Audience: “The World to Come” will appeal primarily to people are interested in well-acted dramas about LGBTQ romances and how people cope with being in unhappy marriages.

Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck in “The World to Come” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Bleecker Street)

The dramatic film “The World to Come” skillfully immerses viewers into a world filled with layers of oppression for the story’s two female protagonists. The two women are stifled by being in miserable relationships with their husbands; society’s bigotry against same-sex romances; and living in an era where wives could be considered property by their husbands. It’s a story that shows in understated yet poignant details how someone’s greatest love and passion could also be that person’s greatest heartbreak.

Directed with emotional intelligence and sensitivity by Mona Fastvold, “The World to Come” is based on Jim Shepard’s lyrical short story in the 2017 collection, each titled “The World to Come.” Shepard and Ron Hansen adapted the short story into the movie’s screenplay, which is told from the point of view of a farmer’s wife named Abigail (played by Katherine Waterston), whose diary entries are read in voiceover narration. The movie takes place primarily in 1856 in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, but “The World to Come” was actually filmed in Romania to capture the type of landscape that no longer exists in that part of New York.

Abigail is an introvert who begins keeping a personal diary of her thoughts, after her husband Dyer (played by Casey Affleck) suggested that she keep a business journal for the farm, such as tools lent out and outstanding bills. Abigail begins her diary in January of 1856, and her subsequent voiceovers over the next several months are told with the dates in chronological order.

Dyer, just like Abigail, is quiet and unassuming. They seem to have an ordinary life with their daughter Nellie (played by Karina Ziana Gherasim), who’s 4 years old. But a tragedy strikes that puts both Dyer and Abigail down a path of depression and emotional turmoil.

By February of that year, Nellie has died from diphtheria. Abigail and Dyer, who are already introverted people, become more withdrawn from each other. Not long after Nellie’s death, Dyer becomes ill with a fever, which puts the productivity of the couple’s farm in jeopardy. (They are the only apparent people who work on the farm.)

Abigail barely has time to grieve while taking care of her ailing husband when another farmer couple moves nearby and unexpectedly changes Abigail’s and Dyer’s lives. Tallie (played by Vanessa Kirby) is a vibrant redhead, while her husband Finney (played by Christopher Abbott) is a brooding control freak. During this very depressing time in Abigail’s life, she writes in her diary: “I have become my grief.”

Dyer eventually recovers from his fever, but he and Abigail remain emotionally distant from each other. They refuse to discuss the death of their daughter, because it seems to be too painful for them to even talk about it. Abigail is expected to help Dyer with farm duties, but soon she’ll have someone who will be taking up a lot of her time and attention.

The first time that Abigail is shown talking about Nellie’s death to another person is in her first conversation with Tallie, who has stopped by Abigail’s home for a neighborly visit. Abigail and Tallie’s first conversation happens to be on the day that would have been Nellie’s fifth birthday. When Abigail tells Tallie this information, unbeknownst to the two of them, it’s the birth of something else: a budding romance between Abigail and Tallie.

The two women become fast friends and eventually confide in each other about their deepest feelings. But the respective marriages to their husbands are never that far from their minds. It’s easy for anyone to see that the passion has dwindled in Abigail and Dyer’s relationship. Tallie and Finney’s relationship is not as easy to read, although Tallie tells Abigail: “I suppose he’s unhappy with me because I have yet to give him a child.”

As Abigail says in one of her diary entries that she reads in a voiceover: “Finney and Tallie’s bond confounds me. At times, when their eyes meet, they seem yoked in opposition to one another, while at other times there seems a shared regard.” Abigail remarks in her diary about her growing romantic feelings about Tallie: “There is something going on between us that I can’t unravel.”

Abigail becomes fully aware of how deep her feelings are for Tallie after Tallie becomes ill from being caught in a snowstorm. Abigail becomes distraught over wondering if Tallie will recover. The snowstorm killed about half of the chickens on Abigail and Dyer’s farm, so the couple will be experiencing some hard times in the near future. However, Abigail is more worried about Tallie’s recovery than the farm’s financial loss from the snowstorm.

Tallie seems to appreciate Abigail’s introverted nature when Tallie tells her: “It’s been my experience that it’s not always those who show the least who actually feel the least.” And Abigail describes their blossoming love affair this way in her diary: “I imagine that I love how our encircling feelings leave nothing out for us to wander or seek.”

One day, Tallie gives Abigail an atlas, which is almost symbolic of their wishful thinking of how they could run off together and travel around the world. By the month of May, Tallie and Abigail’s romance of hand holding and hesitant kisses turn into more passionate displays of affection, and they eventually become secret lovers. Their infidelity to their husbands doesn’t come without feeling guilty about it, but Tallie tries to brush it off by telling Abigail: “I hear intimacy builds good will.”

Dyer and Finney can’t help but notice that their wives are spending more and more time together, sometimes for several hours a day. Dyer expresses frustration that Abigail’s devotion to Tallie has come at the expense of Abigail doing work on the farm. Dyer is annoyed, but he doesn’t become abusive about it.

By contrast, Abigail starts to see signs that Tallie is being abused, such as bruises and how Tallie seems genuinely fearful of Finney, while Tallie tries to pretend that everything is fine. Abigail also tries not to think about something Tallie told her soon after they first met: Finney is thinking about moving further west with Tallie. Later in the story, the two couples have dinner together at Tallie and Finney’s home. And it becomes very clear how cruel Finney can be.

The romance of Abigail and Tallie isn’t really a “sexual identity” story, because the movie never makes a point of declaring what their sexual identities are. There’s no big speech or enlightenment moment that Abigail and Tallie have about why they fell in love with each other. Viewers can speculate that Abigail and Tallie are closeted lesbians or bisexuals, or viewers can speculate that Abigail and/or Tallie don’t care what gender their love partner is. In 1850s America, there really were no specific terms for LGBTQ people, and the subject of any non-heterosexuality was so taboo that it was rarely discussed out loud.

“The World to Come” is really about showing how two lonely people met each other and filled a void in each other’s lives. In Tallie and Abigail’s private conversations, it’s clear that Tallie is more sexually experienced and less sheltered than Abigail, even though Abigail is older than Tallie. Abigail mentions that she married Dyer out of convenience, because he was the older son of a neighbor. By contrast, it’s hinted that Tallie is very aware of her allure and had her pick of suitors before she married Finney. It’s implied that Abigail was probably a virgin when she got married, while Tallie was not.

These hints about their sexual history provide some context for what happens later in the story and how Abigail and Tallie react to obstacles that inevitably occur in their relationship. Abigail is the only person who makes Tallie happy, and vice versa, but Abigail has the added emotional agony of losing a child. It explains why there’s a desperate way that Abigail wants to cling to her relationship with Tallie, no matter what the cost.

Waterston, Kirby, Affleck and Abbott all give commendable performances in their roles. As the story goes on, there’s a noticeable change in the personalities of Abigail and Tallie that Waterston and Kirby express in poignant ways. Abigail starts off very shy and unsure of herself, but becomes more determined and outspoken after she falls in love with Tallie. Meanwhile, Tallie starts off as more of a fun-loving free spirit, but she slowly loses her confidence under the burden of being in an abusive marriage.

Affleck’s Dyer stays on a fairly even keel of being a mournful spouse who has trouble expressing his emotions, but Dyer is someone who hasn’t completely lost his humanity and compassion. Abbott’s Finney is the most complex person of the four because, just like many abusers, Finney has a charismatic side and is skilled at fooling people into thinking that he isn’t as bad as he really is. There’s a scene in the movie that also realistically demonstrates how people who suspect domestic abuse often don’t want to be involved in reporting it or helping a suspected victim.

“The World to Come” is not a groundbreaking film, nor is it going to appeal to people who aren’t interested in deliberately paced dramas that take place in the 1800s. Some viewers might also be slightly annoyed by the film’s constant voiceovers by Abigail. However, her writings are a subtle nod to how articulate and intelligent Abigail is, considering that she was not a wealthy woman with the means to get a higher education, in an era when women were discouraged from being as educated as men.

Fastvold’s unfussy directing style is exemplified by the technical choices made in the movie’s costume design, production design and musical score, which all complement the creative aspects of the film without being overwhelming. The farm folks in this story live simply and quietly. If the movie had made Tallie and Abigail’s romance a big melodrama, it wouldn’t ring true for this rural culture of people who live discreetly and don’t want to call attention to themselves.

The actors in this movie’s relatively small cast make the most out of this intimate snapshot of a year in the life of these four people who have been damaged in some way by disillusionment. Tallie and Abigail experience glimmers of hope and a purpose to live because of the unexpected love that they found with each other. But it’s a love where people will inevitably get hurt, and decisions are made on how much of that love is worth any personal sacrifices.

Bleecker Street released “The World to Come” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is March 2, 2021.

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