Movie Review: A strikingly unaffected performance in an aimless ramble — “Italian Studies”

It begins with that socially awkward moment, a “Do you remember me?” that quickly transitions from embarrassment to “triggered” for the 30ish writer Alina. A Londoner whose latest collection of short stories, “Italian Studies,” has gained her a measure of fame, she’s wrong-footed and rattled by that simple question.

Hanging around a recording studio, listening to a very young woman put down backing tracks in that baby dollish imitation Ariana style, Alina ducks outside to bum a smoke. And the barely-out-of-her-teens young woman who provides it opens the door on a blank spot in her life.

It was in New York, remember? You came with Simon. “You don’t remember Simon? How’s that possible?”

Alina struggles, admits confusion and wonders, “Wait, was that when I lost my dog?”

“Italian Studies” is an ambling, almost aimlessly wandering flashback of a movie, an immersive yet arm’s-length recollection of the time the writer’s mind went blank after ducking into a Manhattan hardware store and forgetting her the tiny poodle she left tied up outside.

Writer-director Adam Leon (“Tramps”) drops Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) into an alien milieu, a woman of looks and means and fame who has so lost her bearings she can’t feed herself, can’t get back into the place she where she seems to remember she’s staying.

Young Orthodox men on the make harass her on the street. “Are you Jewish?”

“I…I don’t know.”

Every encounter, including the come-on of 20ish weed dealer and Sea Papaya hot-dog hustler Simon (Simon Brickner) begins oddly and continues awkwardly because Alina can’t disconnect, can’t remember entirely who she’s supposed to be and cannot find her footing in the conversation, the city or her reality.

She stops in a library to read a bit from her book, chuckling at lines she forgot she wrote, and distractedly autographs it. That gets her into an argument with a patron who wants to stop her from defacing public property. She steps into a bodega and tries to beg-without-begging for some ramen noodles. There’s privilege and desperation in this simple “I forgot my purse” (and most everything else) encounter. She can’t sweet-talk-from-a-beautiful-woman her way into her hotel room either, and sleeps in the stairwell.

Not that she looks like it on her perfectly-put-together walk through the next day.

The way I read her ramble is that all Alina has to fall back on is her process, one thing she remembers she did and that might retrieve some of her reality. She’s a writer. She talks to people, young people apparently. So that’s what she does, asking questions like “Have you ever been in love?” She engages in conversation after conversation, cadges drinks in a club and hears out the passions and anxieties of a generous sampling of 20ish New Yorkers.

Leon’s filming strategy is to overhear some of this — capturing a conversation from across the street at times. He mostly focuses on his movie’s reason for existence — he talked “It” girl Vanessa Kirby into doing this — and she lets us see a woman struggling to recover who she is, what her own passions are, what she remembers that pisses her off. Being called “unoriginal,” for starters.

None of it adds up to much of a movie. “Italian Studies” is more an experimental collection of filmed conversations, filmed docu-drama style, interspersed with clips of a gorgeous blonde wandering New York. But because it stars Vanessa Kirby…

Rating: unrated, smoking, drug use, profanity

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, David Ajala, Simon Brickner, Maya Hawke

Credits: Scripted and directed by Adam Leon. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:21

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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