It’s easy to pick an Adam Leon movie out of a lineup because an Adam Leon movie is a more or less fixed quantity: They’re set in New York City, they’re centered around young people and they involve a whole lot of walking around in search of varied MacGuffins or whatsits that by nature mean less to Leon than character and vibes. In his 2013 feature debut, Gimme the Loot, two Black teenagers architect a scheme to tag Shea Stadium’s Home Run Apple on a sweaty summer’s day. In 2017’s Tramps, a strip club waitress and a line cook join in a heist caper that goes all wrong in the time it takes to bungle a briefcase hand-off.
What lets these films stand out from other low-key New York crime stories and, indeed, from each other, comes down to Leon’s grasp of the particularities that define his casts and plots. Tramps emphasizes the latter. Gimme the Loot invests more in tone. Both benefit immensely from Leon’s unfailing generosity as a filmmaker, a quality that recalls the open-hearted warmth found in the late Jonathan Demme’s body of work. Unsurprisingly, that quality informs Leon’s latest effort, Italian Studies. Once again, he has set his story in New York City. Once again, he contentedly ambles around his locations while his characters talk about big significant things in small-scale contexts. But Leon constructed Tramps and Gimme the Loot with brick and mortar. Italian Studies is strung together with far more ephemeral material.
The title refers to a short story collection by Alina Reynolds (Vanessa Kirby), a Londoner lost in New York City, and seemingly in time, too, struck dumb by a sudden bout of amnesia that robs her of her memory and leaves her stranded in a strange place. Italian Studies opens in London, where Alina hangs out in a music studio as her husband (David Ajala) records a dream-pop duo before a young lady in the studio pipes up about the time they met in New York and hung out with a boy named Simon (Simon Brickner). Alina is clueless. She hasn’t the faintest idea what the stranger is on about. In the ensuing flashback, which makes up most of the film’s running time, we get an idea of why: That time in New York happens to be the same time Alina’s brain abandoned her.
Leon shoots this key moment, where Alina’s amnesia kneecaps her, with casual poise. There’s nothing special about it. It’s a day like any other day in New York in summer: Alina, looking chic and fashionable in a way that’s so breezy as to be infuriating, takes her curly-haired pooch out for a walk, arrives at a hardware store, ties the dog outside and within minutes of perusing the aisles forgets who she is, where she is and why the fuck she’s browsing wingnuts and push brooms. She leaves the store. She walks away from the dog, expectantly wagging its tail. There’s an unexpectedly heartbreaking cosmic cruelty to the sequence absent in Leon’s other films, though the cruelty is a byproduct of Alina’s stupor and not the intent. It’s sad. It’s scary, too.
Scariest of all is Kirby who, in tight proximity with Leon’s camera (guided by his third cinematographer in as many films, Brett Jutkiewicz), somehow conveys Alina’s blackout by doing as little emoting as possible. We can see the instant her mind goes blank, fluttering across her eyes. That kind of darkness simply doesn’t factor into Gimme the Loot or Tramps, but Leon doesn’t deny his audience lightness for long. Alina meets the excitable, chatty Simon at Papaya Dog and then joins him gallivanting around with his group of friends, whom she sits down to interview one-on-one over the course of what counts as Italian Studies’ plot. Unexpectedly, these scenes make Italian Studies a spiritual cousin to Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, where the same conceit is used to more concrete effect: There’s no defined sense of when these interviews take place, or what their purpose is, but they nonetheless reveal a great deal about this freshman generation’s ethos regarding friendship, God and social fears.
Where the interviews are conducted in a documentarian, talking-head style as Kirby lobs questions from off-camera, the rest of Italian Studies is shot in slow, deliberate wides; in tight, intimate close-ups; and occasionally through telephoto lenses that, just as in Gimme the Loot and Tramps, stress the distance separating Leon’s audience from his characters. We’re as equally aware of our role as viewers, watching from afar, as Alina is unaware she’s being watched. Leon’s gorgeous filmmaking belies a voyeurism to Italian Studies’ fragmented structure, but voyeurism isn’t enough to keep him from being himself as a director. Compassion abounds. Friendships are made. Relationships are kindled. Alina even reunites with her dog in the end. It’s an odd sort of travelogue Leon and Kirby curate here, but Italian Studies’ drifting, artsy peculiarities make 70 minutes fly by with a palliative affection—for Alina, for New York and for all the intersecting stories contained within its bounds.
Director: Adam Leon
Writer: Adam Leon
Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Simon Brickner, David Ajala, Rosa Walton, Jenny Hollingworth, Annika Wahlsten, Neil Comber
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.