Your appreciation of Taron Lexton’s In Search of Fellini will correlate directly to your appreciation of its winsome lead, Lucy (Ksenia Solo). Lucy is a small town girl from Ohio who, having spent her life living in a protective bubble shaped by mother Claire (Maria Bello) to protect her from the vagaries of being human, decides to make for Italy to meet Federico Fellini, the maestro himself. She is enchanted by his films, as anyone would be, after watching them all during a Fellini film festival, and having been raised on dreams and whimsy, she cannot resist the allure of his magic.
After spending just a few minutes in Lucy’s company, you’ll realize: She’s agonizingly naive. But Lucy’s childlike manner is almost in keeping with Fellini’s pre-’60s work, populated by female leads possessed of varying degrees of innocence. In so many ways, she’s the perfect Fellini female lead, a true believer in the sort of magic that runs like a current through his filmography. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that she’s a spiritual dead ringer for Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s favorite leading lady, not only in his cinema but in his life: They married in 1943, and stayed together until his death in 1993 in spite of his affairs and his functional ineptitude concerning all things unrelated to filmmaking.)
Lucy’s naivete and her love for Fellini matches Lexton’s own passion for Italy’s most revered director. Her innocence isn’t exactly catching (though it is disarming, at least after the film’s first half hour), but his adoration is infectious. If you aren’t a big Felliniphile, Lexton might make you into a devotee, and if you are, then In Search of Fellini’s frayed edges won’t matter much to you—if they matter at all. You might even recognize a little bit of yourself in his work, regardless of your fondness for Fellini: Lucy, raised by a helicopter parent and watched over by a helicopter aunt, Kerri (Mary Lynn Rajskub), feels like a millennial stereotype, inoculated against the world by an over-concerned guardian, unprepared for going out on her own and surviving, except that when she takes the chance to fly, she manages. (Catching a plane to Italy takes a bit of gumption, especially if you can’t go an hour in Cleveland without getting your Vespa towed.)
In Search of Fellini is a film about forced adulthood. It’s about Fellini, of course, and his films, which Lexton cuts and weaves into his original footage with either reckless confidence, or insecurity, or earnest, well-intended guidance. The parallels between Fellini’s films and Lexton’s narrative are as clear as the many references and allusions Lexton makes to Fellini masterpieces, from La Strada, to La Dolce Vita, to Fellini Satyricon. And maybe that’s a tell on Lexton’s part. Based on scenes Rajskub and Bello share throughout the film’s second and third acts, in which they watch Fellini movies in stone-faced confusion, In Search of Fellini seems sometimes intended as an instructional piece for people unfamiliar with his cinema.
But Fellini is a theme here, not a core, driving conflict. Lexton explores more what happens when a person is pushed out of their insulated comfort zone, either by others’ whims or of their own volition, and finds themselves operating in a world unfamiliar to them. It could just be about operating in the world, full-stop. Lucy scarcely knows how to maneuver in America, her place of birth. Early in the film, she goes out for a job as a movie production assistant, oblivious to the many red flags in the job advertisement. When she arrives for her interview, she’s just as oblivious that she’s trying out for a porno. It takes a row of naked breasts to wake her up and send her scrambling out of the building. She’s not exactly the sharpest tack, but we can’t put the burden of blame entirely on her. She wasn’t raised for globetrotting.
In other words, she’s unsophisticated. Her embrace of Fellini might be the most sophisticated thing about her. But In Search of Fellini isn’t a sophisticated movie. Instead, it’s a joyful movie, and the lack of refinement, whether embodied by the overuse of Fellini clips or the lack of juicy material for Bello and Rajskub to sink their teeth into, shows without stymying the movie’s intentions as a love note to its namesake. If nothing else, Lexton will make you want to revisit all of Fellini’s oeuvre. As artistic accomplishments go, that’s admirable. Whether his film is worthy of Fellini’s image is in the eye of the beholder, but one gets the sense that if Il Mago still lived, he would approve, not only of Lexton’s flattering homage but also his understanding of the magic of cinema.
Director: Taron Lexton
Writer: Nancy Cartwright, Peter Kjenaas
Starring: Ksenia Solo, Maria Bello, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Nancy Cartwright
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.