I started dating my first girlfriend shortly after moving to Minneapolis to attend university.
Extremely nervous about meeting her parents for the first time, and still getting used to a predominantly Lutheran German-Scandinavian cultural milieu I was totally unfamiliar with, I brought a salmon platter complete with crackers, capers and cream cheese.
Assured by my then-partner that they would both love me and the treat I prepared, I entered their cozy home in Wilmar, Minnesota, proudly if nervously holding up the tray for their appraisal.
I received a warm hug from her mother, and her father took one look at me and smiled and heartily shook my hand. He then took a good look at my gift and told me….”But I don’t like salmon.”
I was reminded of many other cute and funny memories while watching “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” as well as some as some less pleasant ones.
- Calling an old high school crush the way another character does, only to be disappointed in a similar way.
- Looking at some paintings by my second girlfriend, telling her what a great artist she was -- just as the female lead tells the protagonist, even as we can subtly tell he doubts not just his own talents but her sincerity.
- And the movie also evokes genuinely fond memories of Christmas time with my uncle and Italian aunt, with her entire family joining us at their house in southwestern Ontario on the shores of Lake Erie, to enjoy a dinner cooked entirely by her mother.
Although writer-director Robert Tinnell based his story on his own personal memories of young adulthood in West Virginia in the early Eighties, he has seemingly by design crafted a film where nearly every scene will invoke a personal memory from the individual spectator.
Warmth is the word to describe this film, warmth for its characters, its setting and and the period in which it is set. Movies that are intensely personal without being ego trips and which strive for empathy rather than mawkish sentimentality are rare creatures indeed.
“Feast of the Seven Fishes,” while no masterpiece, is still a small gem to be treasured amidst a sea of impersonal blockbusters.
The movie is set around Christmas time, 1983, in Fairmont, West Virginia. The movie’s first half follows five young friends, aspiring artist Tony (Skyler Gisondo), his cousin Angelo (Andrew Schulz), best friend and local “townie philosopher” Juke (Josh Helman), Angelo’s girlfriend Sarah (Sarah Darrow) and Sarah’s own best friend Beth (Madison Iseman).
During what should be a festive time, Tony finds himself filled with internal conflict. He got accepted to art school but still wonders if he should stay home and work at the family business. Meanwhile, he is distressed to find that his ex-girlfriend Katie is now working as a stripper, seemingly just to spite him although it turns out she is going through internal drama of her own.
He still cares for her, even though she seemingly doesn’t care for either him or herself. Furthermore, he quickly falls in love with Beth upon being introduced to her by Sarah and Angelo. Although currently attending an unnamed Ivy League school and not Italian at all, Beth quickly becomes part of the family, despite resistance from the old Nona who refers to her with a derogatory term we won’t repeat here.
The second half follows the preparation and serving of the titular feast, a traditional Italian Christmas dinner consisting of seven different seafood dishes (they’re not all actually fish, but who cares as long as they all get eaten?), accompanied by some of the most appetizing onscreen depictions of Italian cuisine since the wonderful “Big Night” (1996).
It’s unfortunate that here in North America, at least, comic books are still almost exclusively thought of in terms of superhero stories by both the general public and much of its targeted readership. So much so that many are unaware that some of the best movies in a variety of genres over the past twenty years -- from “Ghost World” and “The Road to Perdition” to “American Splendor” -- have been adapted from comic books.
Even director David Cronenberg was unaware that his own “A History of Violence” was based a graphic novel until he was invited to promote it at San Diego Comic-Con.
“Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a very rare instance of a book’s film adaptation being both written and directed by its original author, Robert Tinnell, from his Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel of the same title.
Even rarer, it’s a successful adaptation by the original author.
Tinnell’s first movie, “Frankenstein and Me” (1996), starring Burt Reynolds and a talented child actor named Ryan Gosling, was an affectionate love letter to fellow Monster Kids and the classic horror movies that inspired them.
He later found an outlet for his creativity in comic books and graphic novels. The original “Feast” graphic novel was drawn by Alex Saviuk, best known to comic book fans as the main artist on the Spider-Man newspaper strip as well as the comic book Web of Spider-Man from the late Eighties through the early Nineties.
During a period where”hot” Spidey artists Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen helped promote a highly detailed and stylistically exaggerated drawing fashion, Saviuk adhered to old-time traditions of clean, uncluttered draftsmanship and storytelling, typically keeping his characters in the foreground and background detail to a minimum.
In short, he was the perfect artist to tell Tinnell’s story.
Except for an effective montage sequence and one unfortunately ill-advised shot of “thought bubbles” appearing over neighborhood houses (with annoying Facebook Messenger sounds, jarring in an Eighties-set film), Tinnell avoids the sort of stylistic impositions that are frequently used by directors to remind us we are watching a comic book adaptation
The only time this technique has really worked has been under the thoughtful hand of Edgar Wright in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
Quite properly, it’s a simple story straightforwardly told, but with enough wit and nuances in the dialogue and performances to give it some extra depth.
Other than Joe Pantoliano, none of the actors are well known to the general public, but that will likely change in a few years. Gisondo has some of the same open-faced charm and mix of both smarts and naivete that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had in “500 Days of Summer.”
Iseman and Darrow are perfectly cast as, respectively, the type of girl you wanted to date and the type you hoped to marry (and who knows, maybe you really did).
Timlin does an excellent job with what is probably the most difficult role, ensuring the character remains sympathetic in spite of her flaws and lack of self-respect. Similarly, Andrew Schulz is stuck with the most thankless role (he has less screen time than other principle players and the character comes closest to being a stereotype) but is able to make him likable instead of obnoxious.
I was most taken with Josh Helman as Juke, and was shocked to learned afterwards that he’s actually Australian, because he comes off as authentically all-American.
Looking like he could be Gary Sinise’s nephew or Seann William Scott’s half-Italian cousin, he’s wonderful as someone who is as warm-hearted and intelligent as he is handsome yet remains insecure and unlucky in love.
Gisondo’s Tony is equally well-read but shares similar insecurities about his own talents and worth as a person, so it becomes understandable why they would bond for reasons beyond just being smart and decent people. The actors playing the older family members were all unknown to me, but they will likely be familiar to TV binge watchers, and to paraphrase the title of Dick Miller’s autobiography, you may not know them but you love them anyways.
The writer-director manages to avoid some of the other cliches that have marred other cinematic nostalgia pieces, particularly recent ones set in the Eighties. We’ve had our fill of obnoxious Eighties period pieces, movies and TV shows that try to set the period with incessant New Wave and hair metal soundtracks, exaggerated clothing and hairstyles that few people actually wore, and dialogue consisting mostly of pop culture references that no one actually made.
Tinnell mercifully avoids the temptation to engage in similar tactics, except for when Spandau Ballet’s “True” plays in the background while characters slow dance and make romantic conversation (someday filmmakers will realize that there were other good love songs in the decade).
The tone is mostly set through credible period dialogue, and when people have pop-culture conversations, they’re the type people actually had back in the day, arguing the merits of those upstart artists Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads, and whether or not Boston is still a rock band worth listening to.
There are other little asides to remind us this takes place 35 years ago (when a bar cover fee was just three dollars, but you had to put up with a clinging cloud of smoke), but for the most part, there seems to be more intent to remind us that things haven’t really changed that much.
That’s particularly true when the older characters reminisce about World War II and the hardships they faced in the years both before and after that conflict. Even a funny story about opossum being prepared Italian-style has a sad undercurrent.
It’s a sobering reminder that not only is there far less of a difference between 1983 and 2019 than there is between 1983 and 1947, but that life has gotten better for all of us over the past 70 years.
The movie is also a necessary reminder that cultural diversity has always been a part of the American fabric, and that small towns and rural regions are as much a part of it as the big cities and metropolitan areas.
You may remember how Sarah Palin was mocked by Frank Rich and other far-left commentators for stating that Alaska was a microcosm of America. They sneered at her temerity to declare that her home state came anywhere near Los Angeles and New York City in terms of cultural plurality.
When it turned out that the three most diverse neighborhoods in the country were all located in Anchorage, an apology was obviously forthcoming but none was received.
“Feast of the Seven Fishes” provides a similar reality check for the cinema.
There have been plenty of films made over the past 30 years dealing with families hailing from the various cultures that make up the nation. Few have ventured past the nation’s largest cities for their setting.
Seriously, when was the last time you saw a movie about Italian-Americans that wasn’t set in Greater New York? If anything, there is a certain advantage to smaller cities and towns in that you do not have to go out of your way to experience all the diversity it may offer, and the film reminds us of this.
As one character states, “on Christmas Eve in this town, everyone becomes Italian,” which is a natural consequence when the greater community is so small and tight-knit to begin with, that traditions and celebrations from all the cultures that make it up get embraced by everyone.
— Blade Chucker (@charlestrotter) August 4, 2019
I hope I have not oversold the film, because there are some glaring flaws. In particular, a subplot about Beth’s ex-boyfriend and her mom’s preference for him over Tony is awkwardly dealt with, brought up early then forgotten about (by the script and audience alike) until movie is almost over. It suddenly because becomes so important at too late a point in the film, that we get genuinely annoyed that this roadblock to their happiness is put before them.
For that matter, Beth’s meddlesome mom is the worst written and acted character in the film, an insufferable, bigoted WASP stereotype, and it’s double annoying that she re-enters the film when what we really want is more of Angelo and Sarah (especially the latter, a most appealing character who practically disappears from the film’s second half) and a satisfactory resolution to their relationship.
The movie is so desperate to retain its PG-13 rating that although we see Katie at her workplace, she’s clothed in a long-sleeved sweater. Although I suppose we should give Tinnell credit for treating both his actress and her character with due respect and dignity, it’s an awkwardly-directed scene consisting mostly of close-ups to ensure with none of her co-workers are seen in the background.
And for this emetophobe, four puke scenes in one movie are four too many, but at least it guarantees no one will mistake it for some schmaltzy Hallmark production (which unfortunately is how it seems to be advertised).
I will not complain too much because for all of its flaws, watching the movie was not just a welcome one but a welcoming one. Instead of nostalgia for the period in which it is set, it left me yearning for the independent films of the following decade, when filmmakers weren’t afraid to tell small personal stories and tell them well, and audiences weren’t afraid to go out and see them.
There is plenty on this plate to enjoy, even if you don’t like eel (or salmon).
A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.