2013 // USA // Nicole Gomez Fisher // November 23, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
[Full Disclosure: Sleeping With the Fishes was one of five debut feature films in the juried New Filmmaker’s Forum competition at the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival. I served on the NFF jury, and spoke with director Nicole Gomez Fisher briefly at the SLIFF Closing Night Party. This review is intentionally biased to provide an affirmative, constructive evaluation of the film.]
An unusual species of humor bubbles through the screenplay of writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher’s Sleeping With the Fishes. That humor relies to a great extent on the charm of lovable, over-the-top characters doing nothing more than showcasing their personalities. Fishes is not a film that sizzles with outrageous jokes, pithy one-liners, or quotable digressions. However, it is funny, in the way that an absurd anecdote provokes a helpless smile. The script contains traces of Woody Allen’s mopey, self-effacing neuroticism as well as Kathy Griffin’s catty, hyperbolic storytelling. While its eccentric sensibility misses as often as it connects, Fishes is a remarkably assured comedy for a feature film debut. The distinctive pleasures of the film lie in observing the members of the titular Fish family alternately snipe at and comfort one another, and in the way that Fisher coaxes the viewer to root for her hapless heroine.
That would be Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez), a high-strung twentysomething who fled her Brooklyn upbringing to marry what she thought was the man of her dreams. Over the course of the past year, however, Alexis’ life has come crashing down around her. Her husband died in an accident, which not only exposed his history of secret infidelity but also saddled her with a small mountain of debt. Mired in depression and fumbling through a series of low-paying, menial jobs, Alexis desperately needs a fresh start. Fortunately, one presents itself when her endearingly geeky sister Kayla (Anna Ortiz) urges her to return to New York. Ostensibly, this homecoming is for a relative’s funeral, but in actuality the sisters are plotting to kickstart Alexis’ dormant career as a party planner. Unfortunately, this means that Alexis must confront her hyper-critical mother, Estella (Priscilla Lopez), who seizes every opportunity to comment on her daughter’s appearance and catalog her alleged blunders.
Needless to say, such needling is precisely what Alexis does not need as she struggles to claw her way out from under her misfortunes. The angst of the mother-daughter relationship is the foundation on which the rest of Fishes’ drama is erected. The film’s conflicts are relatively low-stakes, but for Alexis they seem enormous. Her future financial security depends on her planning and executing an extravagant bat mitzvah for an awkward tween (Misha Seo). Her shattered confidence perks up at the sight of sensitive heartthrob Dominic (Steven Strait), but the nascent relationship is stalled by misunderstandings. As Alexis attempts to move past her humiliating and dispiriting recent past, every step forward seems to be followed by two steps backwards. Sister Kayla offers enthusiastic encouragement, but Alexis’ mother is always there, ready to offer her opinion on exactly how her daughter has erred.
As with many indie comedies, the film's most serious weaknesses lie in pacing and structure. Too often, scenes feel excessively and haphazardly episodic, more like standalone sketches from improv night than slices of a cohesive narrative. Fortunately, Fishes generally maintains a cartoonish, somewhat breathless tone that keeps things moving through sequences of deadpan snark and general sitcom zaniness. Fisher is adept in her treatment of Alexis’ mixed Latina-Jewish heritage, which is integral to the film’s personality but never threatens to devours the story. Alexis’ ethnic identity finds expression not only in her anxious, sharp-tongued persona, but also in the film’s biting but warm-hearted depiction of her parents. Estella and Leonard (Tibor Feldman) simultaneously embody and subtly tweak stereotypes regarding Latin mothers and Jewish fathers, and it is in their private moments with Alexis that the film finds a touch of honest-to-goodness pathos.
The challenge (and occasional necessity) of starting over in life is the prevailing theme of Fishes, and while the film has nothing particularly novel to say on the subject, it is nonetheless an enjoyable little bauble. Rodriguez is astonishingly precise in her portrayal of Alexis, conveying just enough insecurity and goggle-eyed panic that one can believe a woman as smart, sexy, and witty as she could still be an absolute train wreck under the right circumstances. That the viewer is pulling for Alexis by the end is not attributable solely (or even mostly) to her pitiable situation. Rather, it rests on the character's instinctive goodness, quick thinking, and sheer pluck in the face of adversities that would have defeated a lesser woman. Despite what her mother may insist, Alexis is worthy of a little love and success just as she is.