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Union Square: Toronto Film Review

Union Square - Toronto Film Festival - P 2011
Tammy Blanchard and Mira Sorvino

The Bottom Line

This sliver of a drama charts the rocky path of two estranged sisters from the Bronx rediscovering common ground.

Venue

Toronto Film Festival

Cast

Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard, Mike Doyle, Michael Rispoli, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Patti LuPone

Director

Nancy Savoca

Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard star in Nancy Savoca's drama as two Bronx-bred estranged sisters rediscovering common ground.

Nancy Savoca kicked off her career by winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with her 1989 debut feature about a Bronx wedding, True Love. In Union Square, the director returns to those roots, and to a more rough-and-ready era in American independent filmmaking, when a raw, guerilla style was often preferred to slick and safe. The no-budget resourcefulness evident in this micro-scale chamber piece, and the affection invested in its characters, go some distance toward countering its predictability.

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

Outfitted in a black lace top, a skimpy skirt with tacky feather ruffle, fur-trimmed ankle boots and cheap highlights, Mira Sorvino could almost be reprising her dim-wit hooker role from Mighty Aphrodite. But Lucy is just an average Bronx gal, downtown to shop for discount fashion and hoping to hook up with the married businessman she’s been seeing. An opening shot of her composing and recomposing what’s meant to read like a casual text to him suggests a desperation that erupts -- over retail therapy and a string of phone calls -- into a shrieking meltdown when he brushes her off.

This aims to be a funny but poignant entrée into the story, but in fact it’s more of an assault. Sorvino presents Lucy as so shrill, crass and clueless that she initially appears to be the kind of character that could only function in broad, non-naturalistic comedy. But balance comes along in the form of Tammy Blanchard as Lucy’s estranged sister and polar opposite, Jenny.

Impervious to the cool welcome she receives, Lucy descends like a human hurricane on Jenny’s austere apartment, where she lives with her easygoing fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), running a small organic food company. A garish blast of color in a sterile, beige environment, Lucy invites her equally loud friend Sarah (Daphne Rubin-Vega) over to guzzle vodka gimlets, threatening to blow Jenny’s carefully constructed persona of being a nice girl from Maine. Only later when Lucy reveals that their mother has died does Jenny begin to show signs of what severing her family ties and denying her roots has cost her.

There are few surprises in Mary Tobler and Savoca’s script as it progresses, but the director has always shown skill at accessing the inner lives of women, which is what saves the rather slight Union Square, her first feature since Dirt in 2003.

Ripples of friction come from the standard resentments of a sister who stayed behind to take care of their high-maintenance mother, while her younger sibling fled to reinvent herself and erase her trashy background. But it’s Lucy’s ability, almost despite her clumsy manner, to make Jenny face up to her dishonesty that gives the film some texture. The claustrophobic setting (most of the action takes place in Jenny’s apartment) heightens the tension of their interplay.

There are forced touches, such as the sisters’ conflict being mirrored in Lucy’s favorite TV show, Salon Divas, a faux-Bravo reality confection about quarrelsome hairdressers. But there are also moments where the writing shows pleasing restraint, notably in Bill’s hesitant response to revelations about the woman he thought he knew. A final scene in which the sisters watch a video of their late mother (Patti LuPone, in an incisive few minutes of screen time) is a little soft as an emotional resolution, but it wraps things up with a delicate promise of reconnection.

Sorvino improves as the story advances, even if she remains too much of a borderline caricature, making her an odd fit for the John Cassavetes-style spontaneity that Savoca acknowledges as an influence. Blanchard is more at ease. Struggling with her turbulent feelings and inching painfully toward self-acceptance, it’s her work that resonates most.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Armian Pictures, Cine-Si
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard, Mike Doyle, Michael Rispoli, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Patti LuPone
Director: Nancy Savoca
Screenwriters: Mary Tobler, Nancy Savoca
Producers: Richard Guay, Neda Armian
Director of photography: Lisa Leone
Production designer: Sarah Frank
Costume designer: Liz Prince
Editor: Jennifer Lee
No rating, 80 minutes