REVIEW: Italian Studies [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 78 minutes
    Release Date: January 14th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Magnolia Pictures
    Director(s): Adam Leon
    Writer(s): Adam Leon

You’re ‘warm world.’

It makes sense when writer/director Adam Leon explains the origins of Italian Studies came about by circumstance rather than intent. His friend Vanessa Kirby said she’d be in New York City for a while and that they should do something together. She wanted to be challenged. She wanted to roam the streets. Leon wanted to oblige despite not feeling certain he was ready to create anything new. It was his financiers saying “Go for it” that made it seem the stars were aligned. He called a bunch of teen actors he just worked with on another project, collaborated with Kirby on the concept of a British writer losing her memory and connecting emotionally with a group of kids to pull herself back, and let the experience dictate content.

The result isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s disjointed. The narrator is unreliable. Fact and fiction blur constantly. The whole is more ride than plot, but that truth doesn’t make it any less impactful or captivating. I’ll admit I’m still confused about certain things—namely that there are distinct confessional moments where the film style shifts from cinema verité to documentary interview as though we’re supposed to believe Alina Reynolds (Kirby) sat down with these teens despite reality (her journey is bookended by a fateful London reunion with one of the girls to set the rest up like a fluid flashback of memory and imagination) proving otherwise. Leon is intentionally complicating the line separating reality from dream via cinematic convention, daring us to engage rather than absorb.

You either embrace that challenge or reject it. I think the former is worth your time because what you receive is ultimately unique to your own identity since we don’t actually learn about Alina. We don’t even really know she is Alina until the credits. If I’m not mistaken, the only time we even hear that name is from a random stranger who stops her on the street to ask if it’s really her (to which her amnesiac says “Yes” in the hope it’s true) and from her own blindly confident introductions to the teens after believing she must be. Alina is therefore a conduit—untouched by prejudice or fear—who takes us into a vibrant, chaotic, and inspiring world populated by a younger generation discovering its voice.

They’re the reason we’re watching. How they interact with the city, each other, this person almost two decades their senior who has suddenly appeared and been accepted because one of them (Simon Brickner) vouched for her. He’s loquacious and charming and lost in a sort of purgatory between high school ambitions and collegiate uncertainty. He doesn’t want to talk about the darkness in his life. He glosses over trouble (getting kicked out of summer camp) to focus on the positive (he met his first love there) and consciously seeks to be someone others can trust (the way his face drops upon realizing he’s forced his friends to cover a bill they didn’t anticipate paying only bested by the light of potential rising when Alina “pays” with a song).

Who are they? What do they aspire to become? Alina seeks their answers to personal questions under the auspices of research (she’s a writer after all) despite not knowing she can write considering she just discovered through random happenstance that she ever did. And they give them. Candidly. If not for Fred Hechinger and Maya Hawke showing up, I would have assumed all these kids were playing themselves—plucked off the streets to provide honest clarity about their lives (and maybe it still is true). They sing at clubs. They talk about pasts and futures. They give Alina a glimpse through the window of their lives and she, like us, finds herself hanging on every word even if she’ll ultimately forget it all upon finally remembering everything else.

There’s beauty in that, though. Just because she doesn’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t impact her. Maybe she’d still be wandering around New York with amnesia if she didn’t meet them. Maybe she needed them to remind her about the characters in her published short stories (some of what we see are her visions of those fictions, her clothes and actor changing depending on what her jumbled brain recalls) to bring her back. And even if that isn’t true, those experiences become indelible ones for the kids. Maybe not them meeting her or anything she said or did. Just the fact that she listened when no other adult in their lives would. Having her as a sounding board allows them to vocalize their worth without fear of judgment.

Random events leave marks. Memory interprets what those marks are. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s what makes us human. The same goes for survival. Alina could have gone to the police or a hospital, but she consciously avoids both. She steals from convenience stores. Ducks into restaurants to escape the outside circus. Takes leaps of faith to enjoy what’s around her instead of fearing it—some with all their faculties can’t. Kirby is very good, shifting between assured curiosity and uncertain confusion with ease when her mind begins to question her eyes and ears. All her Alina knows is that Simon is good. She can lean on him to find more good people. And they’ll unwittingly protect her because that’s what good people do.

[1] Vanessa Kirby in ITALIAN STUDIES a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Brett Nobar. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Simon Brickner in ITALIAN STUDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] A scene from ITALIAN STUDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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