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Review: Union Square

'Starts calm, and skirts dangerously close to being grating, but then drops a series of emotional bombs to keep you wholly engaged.'

 

I know many people who bristle when a feature film resembles a stage play. I personally have no problems with the format. Limited settings, a short time frame, only a few characters, and a lot of extended, heart-rending speeches only make for a more realistic drama in my eye. Of course, I was a theater major in college, so I can jibe with the ecstasy of the theatrical better than some. Nancy Savoca, a little-known but notable director, typically makes films about the crises of women, particularly women who live in the big city. Her themes seem to revolve around careerism, reproductive rights, and the halcyon hurt of a relationship long slipped away. Union Square, her latest, is a low-budget offering which, like a play, takes place mostly in a single tiny New York apartment, and involves the awkward relationship between two estranged sisters, and how they became estranged. It’s a film that starts calm, and skirts dangerously close to being grating, but then drops a series of emotional bombs to keep you wholly engaged. What’s more, it features some intense and natural performances from some talented actresses. It’s a good little flick.

Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) is a somewhat neurotic lass about to marry a New York milquetoast super-stud, and fulfill her dream of opening her own natural food outlet which she runs out of her posh New York apartment. It is the day before Thanksgiving. Jenny’s sister Lucy (Mira Sorvino) unexpectedly appears and immediately ingratiates herself into Jenny’s apartment. Lucy is a slutty Italian Jersey gal who smokes, drinks, buys dresses she can’t afford, and leaves a whirlwind of detritus in her wake. She doesn’t ever shut up. She also seems to be very seriously hurting over some things. Sorvino, an awesomely talented actress, proves to be something of a force of nature here, giving Lucy a raw emotional vulnerability which is only translucently being masked by her extroverted noisiness. Jenny, meanwhile, has actually lied to her fiancée, explaining that her family lives in Maine (and not Jersey), and that they will not be coming to the wedding. The interplay between the characters is one of hurt, alienation, and inescapable familial bond. These two women aren’t fond of each other, but, in many ways, they need each other. Eventually, as lies are revealed and truths come to light (Lucy is having an affair with an off-screen married man, something about mom is discussed), we learn that Jenny and Lucy have been using their respective introversion and extroversion to escape memories of their mother (Patti Lupone in home videos) who seems to be the black sheep of the family.

Long stretches of Union Square are kind of irksome to watch, as you just have to wait for all the bickering and chatter to calm down in order for the true drama to begin. But once we get to the emotional boxing, we see how hurt these women really are. And how strong. Even if neither of them is very bright. There is a threat of suicide at one point, and the threat tilts between a play for attention, and a gut-churning realization that she may be serious.

Savoca wisely uses the recent trend of hand-held digital photography to capture her film, giving it an appropriately low-key feeling; this film would have been crushed by a big budget. It is stagey, but doesn’t feel it. Mostly, she jets lets the two actresses showcase their talents, and seems to let the scenes unfold as plainly as possible. It doesn’t quite break into the loving naturalness of, say, Mike Leigh, but it’s aspiring to different things. This is a film about women that deals with women’s issues, and contains many small surprises along the way. The ending is also the kind of gentle climax that allows all the previous events to feel complete, even if they aren’t resolved.

Like I said, a good little flick.