'Angelfish': Film Review

Angelfish - Publicity Still - H 2019
Courtesy of Screen 13
Bland but beautiful.

This coming-of-age drama from writer-director Peter Lee follows the romance of two young people in the Bronx.

Angelfish is the coming-of-age tale of high school dropout Brendan (Jimi Stanton) and soon-to-be college freshman Eva (Princess Nokia). Set in 1993 in the Bronx, Brendan works at a neighborhood grocery story in the deli and is the proverbial man of the house in his single-parent home. His mother is extremely distant and seems to care more about drinking and going to Atlantic City with her latest boyfriend than she does about raising her children. This often leaves Brendan to take care of himself and his younger brother, Connor. Eva, however, comes from a very close, stable family and divides her time between hanging out with her friends and helping her mother take care of her disabled brother, Julio.

In its focus on the familial bonds of working-class people of color often relegated to the background in New York-set flicks, Angelfish is in the company of Sundance films like 2003’s Raising Victor Vargas, directed by Peter Sollett; 2004’s Everyday People, directed by Jim McKay; and the 2019 pic Premature, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green. Raising Victor Vargas and Premature in particular both follow the romance of young black and brown people and take their lead characters seriously, presenting authentic depictions of intimacy between romantic newcomers.

Unfortunately, Angelfish is blander and more predictable than the aforementioned predecessors, and stops short of conveying the same kind of raw vulnerability that makes these other films more memorable. Lee’s film plays it disappointingly safe, never deviating from romantic comedy conventions; there are no real surprises that you can’t already see coming.

Spurred on by Brendan’s encouragement, Eva signs up to audition for a play, having confessed to a long-held dream of being an actor. He even suggests she ditch her plans of getting an accounting degree and go to acting school instead. But when Eva loses track of time hanging out with Brendan and forgets to relieve her mother of caregiving duties for her brother, Eva’s mother urges her to stick to the original plan of going to college and prioritize her family. When she abruptly ends her relationship with Brendan, he is devastated and resolves to focus on work and keeping his recently arrested brother out of trouble.

One of the main strengths of the movie is the dialogue, which lands as organic and true to the characters. That the film’s 2018 casting call sought out “Bronx natives, particularly Latinos, to read and contribute feedback to help make the dialogue as authentic as possible" definitely shows.

Whatever intimacy the pic conveys is thanks in part to the sleepily gorgeous cinematography from newcomer Jamal Solomon, as well as the film’s leads. Stanton — whose credits include Castle Rock, The Punisher and the upcoming Bryan Cranston-starrer Your Honor — mostly hits his marks as a reserved old soul who has unquestionably accepted the weight of the family responsibilities that fall on his shoulders. Yet we also get to see the little boy in him who longs for a father in his life when he regularly asks his co-worker, an older man with a family of his own, for advice.

But it also sticks out that Brendan appears more vulnerable and open with his co-worker than he does with Eva. Princess Nokia — best-known as a Nuyorican rapper to watch — infuses Eva with just the right combination of protectiveness and naiveté. Her performance reveals a comfort onscreen that’s rare for an actor’s first feature. It is also refreshing to see a carefree Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx who isn’t always weighed down by the troubles of the world.

Angelfish is a love letter to the Bronx, a nod to New York’s lesser-known but just as essential neighborhoods where everyday people are making a life for themselves and their families. Lee makes sure that we know that Brendan and Eva are from working-class areas that border one another: Kingsbridge and Marble Hill. And it serves as a pointed reminder that having the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge in the background of a frame isn’t always necessary to tell an authentic New York story. Brendan and Eva’s world in the Bronx is New York, too, and there’s plenty of room for more stories like it.

Production companies: Screen Thirteen, Black 26 Pictures, Sultana Films, Rollin Studios
Distribution: Dark Star Pictures
Cast: Princess Nokia, Jimi Stanton, Erin Davie, Rosie Berrido, Stanley Simons, Sebastian Chacon, Alejandra Ramos
Writer-director: Peter Lee
Producers: Robin Rose Singer, Rabia Sultana, Ricardo Vilar, Peter Lee
Executive producers: Ruth Lapin, Brent Finley, Robert I Levine, Lawrence Gillet, Destiny Frasqueri
Director of photography: Jamal Solomon
Music: Tom Bromley
Costume design: Alexa O’Neill
Editors: Esteban Aburto, Emma Greenwell
Production design: Kat VanCleave
VOD release: Nov. 19

96 minutes