To all aspiring filmmakers: This is how you make your film debut.
I love watching the debut of a new director, especially when they double as a writer. Debuts are unique in that they are often filled with passion and a love for film that has yet to fully take form. This film is no exception. All About Nina, Writer/Director Eva Vives’ debut film is interesting, new, and represents everything that makes indie films great. The film follows Nina Geld, a comedienne attempting to break out, despite her troubled past. Along the way, she begins an interesting relationship with the kind hearted and honestly unique Rafe. The film is far from perfect, but it does do a lot of things well.
Any good film almost always necessitates a good script to go off of. The script represents the structure, foundation, and essential bones of a film. This is where most new filmmakers fail. They have all the makings of a director but move along with a lackluster piece of writing and end up producing a lackluster film. However, the script here is quite good. Right off the bat, for a movie about a comedienne, it does the great justice of having good jokes. It establishes unique characters that seem to exist in a real world. Many scripts have great, real characters, but, what makes this one good is how it establishes these characters. At no point does Nina or any other character need to act as Eva’s voice, to project story and explain background. The way people act and interact with each other and their world reveals everything we need to know. This is an elementary lesson that is rarely executed in film today, but Eva does so with ease, showing her hand as a writer and as a director. It takes a lot of skill to pull of exposition like this, albeit with some lacking here and there, such as in the juxtaposition of Nina’s stage personality and her true personality and the juxtaposition of Nina as a whole and Rafe.
Given that, it is safe to say the script is not perfect either. Kate del Castillo’s character, for example, feels more like a prop than a person. By no means is her performance is short of excellent, but the role she played was inconsequential for the film. She has no motives, no goals, arbitrary or otherwise, and no reason to exist except to provide exposition for Nina. Her character is not alone in that. Rafe is victim to the same treatment, although, to a lesser degree. Even Nina’s role, despite being the titular character, lacks a great deal of arc. All of the cathartic release we want her to experience in the climax is rewarded, but is somewhat muted in it’s impact on her character. In addition to that, the end of the film comes altogether too abruptly after a major climactic scene. It does leave you wanting more, but in a bad way, such as in a scenario where a waiter pulls your dinner from you as you’re eating it. It is entirely possible that this was Eva’s intent given the scenes preceding, but intentionally ostracizing an audience is a bold move that I doubt was intentional.
The greatest strength of this film is the performances of the phenomenal cast. While the writing of the characters may have been iffy, the dialogue was quite strong, especially given this cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Nina Geld, was a powerhouse throughout this film providing an extremely strong performance that should not be overlooked by any means, especially because she makes it look easy. Make no mistake, playing a comedian is extremely difficult. As an example, check out the recent Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which proves a good actress with a good joke doesn’t always add up to good screentime. Very rarely do any of the jokes in the series land, as the skills needed to deliver a joke and the skills needed to deliver a line are completely different and Mary Elizabeth Winstead can seamlessly transition from a gut wrenching sob to a calm, collected, and confident performer on stage. Common’s performance deserves great credit as well. He is a perfect fit for the role and does a great job of commanding screen presence. He and Elizabeth Winstead have great, palpable chemistry. To name everyone else in the script would take too long, but there was not a single weak performance in this script, which speaks to Eva’s ability as a director.
Eva’s big weakness with this film is that most young talents suffer with, which is the innumerable “little things” associated with a film. By little things, I mean how each shot is framed and how scenes are cobbled together as well as shooting background or transitioning shots and keeping a scene alive with the blocking of actors. Given a more experienced cinematographer, or simply more time spent framing up a scene would go a long way. This is especially evident in the New York portion of the film. Though the city is often concerned a mecca for indie film shooting, it is both difficult and easy to shoot at the same time. New York is like no other place, however, in this film, they could’ve shot the New York portion in Canada or Madison, Wisconsin with the same results. The city offered very little to the film other than add a plausible background location for an upstart comedienne. In addition to that, intimate shots are a bit stale. Adjustments to lighting, such as contrasting two colors of light as done in Masters of None and La La Land with the juxtaposition of Red and Blue light would go a long way. If not that, then adding more dynamic movements in stagnant environments would help to add tension and vivacity to each scene. Simple fixes like this would go a long way to help keep an audience engaged and dialed in.
Much of this review centers on Eva, as most directorial debuts are really an extension and a result of it’s maker. With that said, she certainly has a great deal of talent and knows very well how to bring out a good performance. I for one look forward to her next film. If you want to see a movie with top notch actors and a timely message on equality and feminism, this is it. It is certainly worth a watch, especially if you consider yourself a fan of indie film.
The film hits theaters this Friday.