Recently widowed Joe (Firth) accepts a teaching post in Italy to start again. But teenage daughter Kellys (Holland) burgeoning sexuality creates distance between them, while 10 year-old Mary (Haney-Jardine) is troubled by visions of her dead mother.
Like Amélie, don’t you hate it when people in movies don’t watch the road when they’re driving? Marianne (Hope Davis) is tootling along playing a silly game with her daughters when it gets out of hand and, totally unsurprisingly, ends in a fatal accident. Some months later, Marianne’s numbed husband, Joe (Colin Firth), is offered a position at the university in Genova by old pal Barbara (Catherine Keener).
The attractions of the medieval Italian city, lively students and sunny beaches are evident, and explorations of its by-ways nicely avoid the familiar landmarks we would have been spotting if this had been called Venezia or Roma. Dramatic clichés are not so completely eluded. The family embrace la vita Genovese easily enough. A little too easily, perhaps, in the 16 year-old’s (Willa Holland) case, since she is catnip for the beach-boy set with their scooters and practised chat-up lines. She is, naturally, seething with resentments, which pretty Holland, an alumna of The OC, manages to make more sympathetic than not. Just as naturally the younger child (Perla Haney-Jardine) gets literally and figuratively lost, although the appearances of her mother’s ghost are a tad unsettling.But Dad is a classic Brit, so he internalises everything and just hopes everyone will get through it. You can smell a crisis of some sort cooking, to draw them back together.
Michael Winterbottom is one of the foremost exponents of the documentary-drama style, and he makes good use of his technique in this intensely intimate piece, while the cast achieve a degree of realism. And we love the way cinematographer Marcel Zyskind captures the city whizzing past from the vantage point of a scooter. But these people still seem detached, sketchy (we don’t even know what Joe is a professor of), and too many incidents seem routine. (Joe, for example, needs little Mary’s precociously accomplished, troubling drawings in order to twig she has unresolved issues and is haunted by her mother — since her shrieks in the night haven’t clued him up.) Tolstoy said each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This family, not so much.
As solid as youd look for from Winterbottom and this cast, but the touches of supernatural thriller in an otherwise rather conventional coming-to-terms-with-bereavement drama arent entirely convincing.