Adam Leon’s foggy mood piece is as endearingly formless as its amnesiac protagonist, a moody reflection on creativity and youth.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
There’s no explicit explanation given for why Alina Reynolds (Vanessa Kirby), a short story writer of some recent renown, finds herself aimlessly wandering the streets of New York City sans memory in Adam Leon‘s hypnotic Italian Studies. But if anyone was to thrive in the Big Apple in such a remarkable fugue state, it’d be someone so preternaturally attuned to listening and observing as Alina. And that she does for the vast majority of Italian Studies‘ runtime, creating a listless yet engrossing fever dream about the unexpected gifts of curiosity.
Leon, in his third film after Gimme the Loot and Tramps, takes this opportunity to slow his roll a bit, shifting his usual NYC explorations from the fleet-footed predecessors to the lackadaisical romp shown here. This time, Kirby is his vessel for such observation, wandering through the streets and shops of New York City in a manner not unlike Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin — you’re often left wondering which of Kirby’s scene partners (many of whom are nonprofessionals) are truly in the movie, or if they’re just interacting with a stranger they met one day, as lost around her as she is around them.
Kirby, in keeping with the incredible star power she’s cultivated over the last couple of years (complete with Oscar nomination for Pieces of a Woman), is a captivating presence here. Leon captures her impish curiosity in close-up after close-up, and it lingers even when Leon’s telephoto lenses are interrupted by subway trains or walks ahead of Kirby on occasion. She’s a blank slate, but she’s meant to be: as implied by the many scenes of her interviewing giddy, excitable teens about their lives and thoughts from off-camera, Kirby herself feels like an extension of Leon’s observational eye.
And it’s really the kids that seem to be the star of Italian Studies, A-list star notwithstanding. Alina’s newness makes her more than a little childlike, which attracts her to the young people she meets; they’re all too eager to share their perspectives on life, love, and the future. (One gets the sense that, even in amnesia, Alina is collecting their experiences for material, especially as she regurgitates stories she hears from them and passes them off as her own.)
But one kid who breaks through her anthropological approach is Simon (Simon Brickner), a toothy Lucas Hedges-type with wispy facial hair and a singing voice like a malfunctioning goat. There’s a grinning, aw-shucks accessibility to him that’s deeply cute: “I aspire to be harmless,” he admits at one point, which feels like the mission statement for the gentle, with-it Gen-Z white dude who so desperately wants to survive his cohort’s scrutiny unscathed. If the Safdies made films with nice people who deserve nothing but the best things, he’d be first in line to star.
Of course, amid all the dreamy hangout vibes of the piece (aided ably by Nicholas Britell‘s airy, synthy score), Italian Studies feels like a lesson in rediscovering your creativity. What would you do if you could just wipe your memory and experience something you created with fresh, unvarnished eyes? What if you could experience, just for a moment, the unfettered enthusiasm and ambition of childhood? Through Alina, Leon explores these questions and more, even if he’s not all that interested in coming up with concrete answers.
If you’re looking for answers to the mystery of Alina’s memory, what she wants with these kids, and where her creativity might take her next, Italian Studies will likely bore you to tears. But if you’re in any way vibes-friendly, there might well be something to Kirby’s lilting travelogue through the smoky streets of New York, too-hip teens in tow. Through the eyes of all his characters — and the camera itself — Leon gives us a glimpse into how much he adores the city he calls him, and invites you to swim in its eccentricities for a while alongside him.