A sensitive guy stuck in a small-town rut sees his Christmas shaken up in Robert Tinnell’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, an ensemble rom-com revolving around Italian-American tradition and the more universal filmmaking tradition of milking supposed ethnic quirks for good-natured comedy. Continuing the fine year he started with a breakout performance in Olivia Wilde’s riotous Booksmart and continued with The Righteous Gemstones, Skyler Gisondo stars as the aforementioned fella, a townie whose budding romance with a college girl (Madison Iseman) hits speed bumps slightly less dramatic than those encountered by his Shakespearean countryman Romeo. Buoyed by enjoyable performances by character actors like Paul Ben-Victor, the pic is slight but likable, especially for fans of its younger leads.
(An aside: Please allow a critic who has had to review three Christmas films in a week to express the strong conviction that no such movie should open, or even be spoken of, before Thanksgiving. But you can’t hold filmmakers responsible for a distributor’s tacky timing, so here we are.)
Gisondo’s Tony Oliverio lives in the same West Virginia coal-mining town that his great-grandparents moved to when they left Italy. Grandpa Johnny (Ben-Victor) worked in the mines; his son (Tony Bingham) started a grocery; and Tony works there while studying business, presumably to keep running the family store. It’s a close-knit family, with uncles like the shady but friendly Frankie (Joe Pantoliano) always around and the matriarch Nonna (Lynn Cohen) overseeing everything from upstairs.
Opening scenes quickly establish the film’s everyone-knows-everyone vibe, but when it comes to Tony’s social group, that proves not to be the case. Iseman’s Beth grew up here, but went to a faraway private school, so when she comes out for drinks with Tony and friends, he’s taken aback by the stranger. Maybe doubly so since the pretty, petite blonde has some things in common with his ex, Katie (Addison Timlin).
Appearance aside, the women could hardly be less alike. Beth’s an Ivy League student from a Waspy family locals call “cake-eaters”; Katie is going nowhere, so desperate to get Tony back in her life that she seemingly takes a job as a stripper just so he’ll come to the club (in the middle of his night out with Beth) to talk her out of it. That goes poorly, but doesn’t convince Beth to ditch Tony; the two wind up chastely hanging out until morning, and she gets invited to join his family for the next day’s big meal. Though it will fill Tony with anxiety and Beth’s mother with “they’re not our kind of people” disapproval, she says yes.
While it doesn’t offer recipes, as the graphic novel it’s based on did (the book was written by Tinnell), the film is much enlivened by talk of this seafood-centric tradition, and by scenes set in the Oliverio kitchen that feel warmly authentic — down to details like the chair blocking the back door guests keep needing to use.
Scenes revolving around kitchen work provide an amiable context for Tony’s concerns (romantic and otherwise), but they do little to show the movie sees its female characters as real people: Iseman has little to do in the film’s second half beyond smile and look sweetly interested in the family; poor Katie’s subplot revolves entirely around the question of whether she deserves the love Tony stopped giving her.
If its first act contained echoes of a movie like Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, Feast of the Seven Fishes is ultimately less good at fleshing out its ensemble, both its young women and young men: Try as it might to bury Josh Helman’s looks under a knit cap, bad hair and clunky glasses, it can’t quite sell him as a sad-sack rural philosopher. (Though better writing would’ve helped.) It’s much more confident with setting than character — the period touches that establish we’re in 1983 don’t draw attention to themselves, and we even hear a song or two (like The Motels’ “Only the Lonely”) that haven’t been run into the ground in other ’80s films. Details like these, almost surely drawn from the storyteller’s actual youth, are key to the pic’s modest appeal.
Production company: Allegheny Image Factory
Distributor: Shout Studios
Cast: Skyler Gisondo, Madison Iseman, Josh Helman, Addison Timlin, Paul Ben-Victor, Joe Pantoliano, Andrew Schulz, Ray Abruzzo, David Kallaway, Lynn Cohen, Jessica Darrow
Director-screenwriter: Robert Tinnell
Producers: John Michaels, Jeffrey Tinnell, Robert Scott Witty
Executive producers: Joseph E. LoConti, Sean Thomas O’Brien, Erick Factor
Director of photography: Jamie Thompson
Production designer: Jason Baker
Costume designer: Joshua Hurt
Editor: Aaron J. Shelton
Composer: Matt Mariano
Casting director: Brandon Henry Rodriguez