Alex in Venice Review: Father Figures and Mother in Crisis

Note: I wrote this review after seeing this film at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. I assumed, at the time, that it would get a theatrical release. The release never happened, but its coming out on home video next week, so I felt it was time to post my review.

A- Contemporary drama

Written by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton

Directed by Chris Messina

The work-vs.-family dynamic comes into full force in this drama set in Venice, California. Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has more than her hands full. She’s an environmental lawyer working very long hours. She’s not working them to get rich; she’s an idealist fighting the corporations who place profit above planet.

But this story is not primarily about her work. It’s about her family.

When we first meet her, she has three men in her life. Her first priority, of course, is her son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner)–ten years old and having trouble making friends. Then there’s her father (Don Johnson), an aging actor sinking into senility. And finally, there’s her husband George, played by the film’s director, Chris Messina.


The story really begins when George, with much hesitance and guilt, tells Alex that he’s leaving her. He’s been effectively a househusband for years. Like Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, he needs to break free and find himself.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A rich guy is building a spa on land currently inhabited by an endangered species, and Alex needs to devote herself to preparing a court case. Not the best time to suddenly become a single parent.

Meanwhile, her father gets what appears to be his first acting gig in years–the role of Firs in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard. But as dementia sinks in, he’s finding it harder than ever to learn his lines.

But the father does have one good idea–or at least it seemed like a good idea at the time. He invites his unemployed other daughter, Lily, to stay with them and take care of Dakota. As played by Katie Nehra (who also conceived of the story and co-wrote the script), Lily is a wild force of nature–upbeat, sexy, and bursting with energy. But she’s also irresponsible; a good person to party with but not the best babysitter.

And yet Lily plays an important part in helping Alex adjust to her new circumstances. Pregnant at 18 and married at 19, Alex never learned how to navigate the adult single scene. Lily helps her free herself–not an easy thing to do for a single parent with an extremely demanding job.

For the most part, Alex in Venice works beautifully. The characters reveal themselves nicely. They’re sweet, funny, and usually very real. The acting is never short of perfect, and this is the sort of story that depends entirely upon the acting.

But the picture has one big flaw. Alex does something in the movie that is so stupid, so unprofessional, and so unethical, that I simply couldn’t accept it. For any lawyer, it would be, and should be, a firing offense. Luckily, this unbelievable act mars only a few scenes.

Alex in Venice was actually shot in Venice, and it captures that beach town beautifully. The story could be set anywhere (or at least in any advanced democracy), but Venice adds atmosphere and scenery to the tale.