Filmmaker Adam Leon has been quietly carving out a peculiar niche in his cinematic efforts. Though his marvelous debut feature, 2012’s Gimme the Loot, and its follow-up, 2016’s Tramps, had plotlines, both films primarily concerned with following young people as they lope around New York City. Leon pleasantly nudged the drama to the background and let his naturalistic dialogue and the charm of his chosen actors pull focus.
His latest effort Italian Studies is Leon’s shaggiest effort yet. The film feels like it was built from the inside out, with the event that sparks its loose, experimental structure becoming something of an afterthought. That event is a subtle one: Alina, a young British writer played by Vanessa Kirby, goes into an unexpected fugue state one afternoon. Her trip to the hardware store becomes a mystery and she’s soon wandering the Big Apple with no money and no idea who she is nor where she’s headed.
Alina soon starts to remember things, but what arrives are details and dialogue from her short story collection rather than her actual life. When she stops at a hotel, certain that she’s staying there, it’s later revealed that a character in her book was the one who had a room there. It serves to blur the lines between the fiction in her head and the supposed reality of what is going on around her as she meanders and interacts with real New Yorkers.
The locals that Alina spends the bulk of her time with are a group of young artists and musicians that she’s inexplicably drawn to. For the most part, these folks are non-actors, playing some version of themselves. This seems to throw Kirby for a loop, forcing her to switch into a much lower acting gear. Her British reserve has to find its way into the rhythms of these gregarious and cautious native New Yorkers. Kirby responds with an uncertainty and wide-eyed curiosity that matches well with her character’s lost state of mind.
Leon complicates matters somewhat by working in interviews of these non-actors, conducted by Kirby. The conversations center on the simple question of whether they’ve ever been in love before and it elicits honest and engaging answers. One young woman compares her current romantic relationship to a black hole. Even after she manages to break free of its gravitational pull, she somehow gets sucked in deeper.
There’s no real need for those segments of the film beyond breaking up the scenes of Alina trying to negotiate the purchase of some instant ramen with no money or verbally sparring with a man in the library after she autographs a copy of her own book. The effect, though, is of a yanking away from the heady atmosphere of the rest of the film.
With the help of cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and a team of editors, Leon puts us in the confused headspace of Alina, someone who lost all grip on herself and is cautiously stepping through the crowded streets of New York like an alien. Each moment of clarity that they work into the film’s slender running time via those interviews only serves to interrupt its momentum and strange allure.