Every now and then a film arrives that escorts us into a locale where people are convincingly shown in the way they live, with characters presented in very human terms. Writer-director Robert Tinnell has rewarded us with just such an engrossing film, this one set in 1983 just before Christmas in the Fairmont, West Virginia, area. Tinnell has based “Feast of the Seven Fishes” on his graphic novel.
The title refers to a traditional Italian feast that is prepared for the holiday, and we get to meet the family that is busy getting the dinner ready. With an immigrant heritage, the family now runs a local market, an achievement that spared members from having to work in the state’s coal mines. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
The film begins as if it were just a tale of a budding romance that emerges from a blind date between young Tony (Skyler Gisondo), a member of the Italian family, who helps out in the market, and Beth (Madison Iseman), the daughter of an upscale family destined to marry a well-heeled guy. But little by little the film develops into a much broader story.
Beth’s outlook on life changes when she gets to know Tony’s very welcoming family and is exposed to the hearty Italian atmosphere that stands in contrast to her colder upbringing under the thumb of her aloof mother, who expects her to follow a traditional path in accordance with her class.
Thus the film takes on a social aspect of breaking down barriers. There is excitement and mutual respect between Beth and Tony, just the opposite of what happens with Beth’s lout of a boyfriend when he returns from a trip and is nasty to Tony and controlling with Beth.
Beth has been enjoying the hospitality of Tony’s family and getting to know all the members. One person we can especially enjoy is the wonderful Lynn Cohen as Nonnie, the great-grandmother, who at first is very hostile to Beth, whom she calls puttana (Italian for prostitute). There is a lovely scene in a church in which Nonnie and Beth get friendly. In her performance Cohen succeeds in providing a human aspect behind her grumpiness, indicating the sadness she still feels at the long ago loss of her husband.
Other characters also come into play, sometimes seeming like a diversion, but overall “Feast of the Seven Fishes” radiates warmth and realism. Tinnell has succeeded in providing an abundance of local atmosphere via excellent cinematography by Jamie Thompson and well-chosen settings. One can feel as if one had dropped in on the folks portrayed and observed a key period of their lives.
There is also something else to take away from the film—an appreciation of how important immigration has been in our country’s history, and the need to appreciate this in light of the anti-immigrant hysteria being fostered by the current administration. Thus “Feast of the Seven Fishes’ succeeds on various important levels besides being enjoyable entertainment.
Others in the fine cast include Josh Helman, Addison Timlin, Ray Abrazzo, Joe Pantoliano, Paul Ben-Victor and Andrew Schulz. A Shout Studios release. Reviewed November 12, 2019.