Here’s another in our series of ongoing reports from Tribeca 2021. Some past Tribeca 2021 (and 2019 and 2018!) write-ups can be found here.
As a film festival, Tribeca has a weakness for New York movies—and why shouldn’t it? Though the New York Film Festival has been around for decades, its smaller slate and marquee attractions from the world of international cinema inevitably limits the New Yorkiness of its selections, while Tribeca has the freedom to explore the city from multiple vantage points every year. That feels particularly pronounced at Tribeca 2021, as so much of the city has been stuck inside for the better part of the last 18 months. At a time when a lot of Tribeca screenings are happening cautiously outdoors, and most people seem to be watching most of the movies from home, a 79-minute experiment like Adam Leon’s Italian Studies (Grade: B+) almost feels like thrilling escapism: Marvel at the rare spectacle of a woman (Vanessa Kirby) wandering around Manhattan, brushing past strangers, and even interacting with them beyond nodding or scowling at the presence or absence of a face mask!
This shouldn’t feel so novel, especially because it’s the starting point for both of Leon’s previous features. In Gimme the Loot, two teenagers tool around the city as part of a master plan to pull off an ambitious graffiti challenge; in Tramps, two strangers embark on a cross-city caper that ventures out into the suburbs, too. Italian Studies was shot before the pandemic—well before, given that it was made piecemeal over the course of a couple of years—but it still represents a fortuitous rethinking of Leon’s central formula. Kirby’s character doesn’t have a mission, not even a ramshackle one. Early in the movie, she approaches a hardware store, ties her dog up outside, ventures in and… seems to lose herself somewhere in the aisles. When she re-emerges, she wanders off, forgetting about her dog. Where is her mind?
Leon keeps even the most basic information ambiguous. Though the first scene, with Kirby’s character lucidly meeting a young woman who remembers her from a New York encounter, cues us that most of the movie is probably some kind of a flashback, time bends in other, weirder ways—namely that the Manhattan she wanders through is sometimes in the heat of summer (t-shirts, Fourth of July fireworks) and sometimes not (jackets, the sounds of slushy streets). At one point, Kirby’s character is spotted by a fan—is she really the author of the short-story collection Italian Studies, or does she just look like her? Later, she pages through a copy of the book with genuine interest. She also intersects with a group of teenagers, introduced by Simon (Simon Brickner), who feels more like a typical Leon protagonist: Chatty, charming, up for an adventure. He chats her up at Papaya Dog, and she winds up tagging along with his friend-group, conducting interviews that are also displaced from a particular time period (and even of the movie’s style, as they imitate a documentary set-up with Kirby asking questions off-camera).
Leon shoots all of this gorgeously, sometimes from a distance and sometimes close enough to make Kirby’s flickers of confusion our own. She’s the perfect actor to carry this kind of impressionistic noodling, with naturally compelling eyes that look slightly alien in their intensity. She becomes a tourist in her own city (other writers have pointed out the similarities to the more unnerving Under the Skin), and Leon’s wide shots emphasize how easily she can slip into a crowd. This could have been material for an art-house wank, but Leon and Kirby capture something wistful in the way this character seems to have to make her way in the city from scratch, with only the smallest of bits of information and intuition making their way to her. Kirby’s big 2020 Oscar movie was an overworked melodrama called Pieces of a Woman. The title also applies here, and the pieces are a lot more interesting.
Italian Studies radiates a Tribeca-perfect love for New York; affection for the city is also the most charitable possible explanation for the existence of Dating and New York (Grade: D) at this or any festival. Though purported to be a kind of fairy-tale love-letter rom-com in the style of lush, screwball-lite 1950s romances starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Dating and New York plays instead like the kind of New York movie that should play at the Bismarck International Film Festival, removed as it is from either the reality or the fantasy of actual NYC. Actually, that’s deeply unfair to the citizens of Bismarck, who most likely could also clock the actively repulsive amount of whimsical graphics and less-whimsical green-screen used to obscure just how little of this movie was shot in New York itself. It’s a story so deeply embedded in the culture of 2020s New York City that it could only be narrated by Turtle from Entourage, with an appreciation for geography that can only be communicated via cutesy cityscape drawings that sub in for actual establishing shots, like this is fucking Caroline in the City.
But it is not Caroline in the City; Caroline in the City sometimes rose to the level of cutely inoffensive. Despite a handful of sight gags pulled off by writer-director Jonah Feingold and a handful of funny lines bit into by Catherine Cohen, playing yet another obligatory B-story-romance bestie, Dating in New York never reaches the desired rat-a-tat speeds; Feingold doesn’t seem to get that characters need to be saying stuff that’s funny, not just saying nothing fast. In fact, the way it takes Milo (Jaboukie Young-White) and Wendy (Francesca Reale) take the better part of 30 minutes to arrive at a friends-with-benefits agreement that is basically the exact plot of Friends with Benefits and also No Strings Attached makes them seem particularly slow.
Some credit must be awarded to the actors: First, based on the available evidence, they did not flee the movie mid-shoot. (Although if they did, the movie wouldn’t look much different; some of their scenes may well have been completed from the comfort of home.) Second, Young-White is a successful stand-up comic in real life, playing an aspiring stand-up comic in this movie, and he is extremely convincing as someone who will never, ever succeed at stand-up, or possibly anything else besides the wearing of turtlenecks. Even that, I’d call more of a qualified success. They do go around his neck, but at what cost in terms of indicating what season it’s supposed to be? Further to that concern, another scene has Reale wearing a turtleneck of her own, with overalls, while Young-White wears a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt. Finally, a movie that asks the haunting question: Does New York have weather?
There’s probably something to be said about how the dating habits of millennials—which Turtle’s bad-screenwriter narration insists Milo and Wendy are, despite just barely squeaking out of Zoomer territory—have introduced screens and Grammable moments into the cultural tapestry of New York City. Dating and New York gets as far as a generic title; the rest of it—the banter, the cheaply computerized interludes, the relentless recitations of cliches about commitment or romantic idealism or whatever the fuck—is about as insightful as double spacing. In a perverse way, it’s comforting: Tribeca 2021 may look different than other iterations, but following the NYC muse can still result in a terrifying range of quality.