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Family Skeletons

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Oren Soffer

MOVIE REVIEW
Allswell (2022)

“Allswell” is an old-fashioned movie in the best possible sense: a slice of ordinary daily lives driven entirely by the characters without a single special effect. As shown by the Tribeca Festival, the heroines are three Nuyorican women in their late 40s who have quite a lot of life left in them – something incredibly offensive to say in real life, but deeply necessary in cinema, which prefers to center the young. Their choices and their attempts to find happiness are all the more valuable for being flavored with past disappointments and the already-learned knowledge that not everything works out the way you want. It’s a rare treat.

Daisy (Elizabeth Rodriguez, who also cowrote the script with director Ben Snyder) and Ida (Liza Colón-Zayas) are sisters; Serene (Daphne Rubin-Vega), former club singer and current vocal coach, is their sister-in-law. Serene has a college-age daughter, Connie (Shyrley Rodriguez), who is busy throwing over her studies for a “modeling” career. Though she thinks she’s discreet, everyone knows about her finsta. Ida works at a sexual health clinic and spends her days counseling people making various poor choices; Daisy owns a restaurant called Allswell with Tim (Max Casella!!!) and Gabe (Bobby Cannavale), who can barely stand to be in the same room together. Daisy is also in the process of a private adoption, having found a scared young woman named Nina (Mackenzie Lansing) on Craigslist. They have no formal agreement and the baby’s not due for months, but that doesn’t stop their entire friendship circle from throwing Daisy a baby shower, at which Nina grows visibly unhappy while Daisy opens a variety of thoughtful gifts, including a high-end stroller from Ida and her husband Ray (Michael Rispoli, who steals the entire movie). But the shower is ruined by Serene, who arrives late and screaming that Connie has been gone for days and is ignoring her calls. Daisy thinks things can’t get more stressful until Ida drops the bombshell that she has found Desmond (Felix Solis), their brother and Serene’s husband. He is sick enough Ida was able to get him to a hospital, where the outlook is bad. It makes finding Connie, who hasn’t seen her father in years, even more urgent.

It’s very satisfying how much this feels like real life. The reason for Desmond’s absence is never explained, nor why he and Daisy haven’t been on speaking terms for years – the story Daisy tells Nina is clearly only part of it. The resentment and love Ida and Daisy have for each other makes a long and sometimes painful history clearly felt, if not articulated. The phone calls back and forth between the three women – who developed the story together with Mr. Snyder – quickly ground the story in the characters and the character in their flaws. Ida thinks she knows better than everyone else; Daisy expresses her love through an overwhelming perfectionism; Serene lets her emotions run away with her, which makes her a great performer but a difficult relative; Connie has youth’s confidence that she is smarter than everyone else. But weirdly it’s the men who have the great moments – a confrontation between Gabe and Tim in the restaurant’s crowded kitchen is a fine display of weary middle-aged aggression; Mr. Rispoli eats every piece of his performance as if it was a steak supper; even Brian Wolfe in a single scene makes an incredible impression as a skate punk with extraordinarily good manners even on the cusp of violence. Considering Ms. Rodriguez, Ms. Colón-Zayas and Ms. Rubin-Vega meant this as a showpiece for themselves, to allow their brilliant but less showboaty work to be so consistently upstaged is a strange choice indeed.

Where the movie does succeed – and brilliantly so – is in how the movie’s dilemmas come entirely from the interpersonal relationships. Ida and her fellow nurse Clint’s (J. Cameron Barnett) catty comments about the smoothies Daisy makes is the only time Nina smiles at the baby shower. Max and Daisy have the battle-scarred rapport of long-term business partners who publicly back each other up without hesitation even when they are furious with the choice the other one is making. Ida’s mostly successful ability to get people to do what she thinks best has its match in Ray’s mild but loving disbelief. Even Serene leaves Connie long voicemails encouraging her to turn her anger and beauty into something positive, which of course irritate Connie no end. The bitter argument in the hospital hallway airs some upsetting dirty laundry; and the final scene makes it clear, with very little dialogue, how discussing a thing does not always improve it. The subtlety of this ending, in which everything has slightly shifted, knows how families repair things through self-knowledge and time. It’s a treat to see a movie that understands how high the stakes in our ordinary lives can be, and respects the consequences.

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