If you’re making an independent film, the chances of it also being a Christmas movie are probably fairly slim. Filmmaking is hard enough as it is; only the truly bold add a seasonal angle on top of all that. Which is what makes Feast of the Seven Fishes such an endearing diversion in a holiday movie season chock full of cheesy Hallmark romances and studio fare that doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Written and directed by Robert Tinnell (and based on a 2005 graphic novel he also wrote), Feast of the Seven Fishes centers around that traditional Christmas Eve meal celebrated in particular by Italian Americans. In this case, it’s Christmas 1983, giving Tinnell another uphill filmmaking battle—the period piece. Skyler Gisondo (“The Righteous Gemstones”) stars as Tony, a teen in the middle of this large, Italian Oliverio family where aunts and uncles are like extra parents and cousins the same age are the friends you run with. Like any family with this many people to keep track of, there are a lot of moving parts to the narrative here, from Tony confronting the bouncer at the strip club where his ex Katie (Addison Timlin) is thinking of working to his cousin Angelo (Andrew Schulz) and his girlfriend Sarah (Jessica Darrow) introducing him to Beth (Madison Iseman), who’s navigating some family drama of her own. Oh, and then there’s that massive meal to prepare, too.
The whole thing becomes an enjoyable, if slight, slice of life that will ring true to anyone with an annual holiday tradition as chaotic as it is essential, as if the holiday doesn’t really happen if the tradition isn’t there to accompany it. That there’s family and relationship drama surrounding all of it only makes it that much more authentic; life doesn’t stop just because the fish needs frying. We get to know the Oliverios well enough, as the brothers lightheartedly bicker over just how long to soak the baccalà (a dried, salted fish) and their wives exchange exasperated glances in response. Beth serves as a bit of an entryway into this colorful, boisterous world, her buttoned-up WASP-y ways in clear contrast. When she decides to spend Christmas Eve with the Oliverios and experience the feast for herself, her mother just can’t fathom why on earth she’d want to do anything other than enjoy a quiet night at home before the holiday. But one glimpse of the joy and energy at Tony’s house that same night, the table heavy with food, the music and laughter in the air, and it makes perfect sense—why would you want to be anywhere else at all?
Tapping into the story’s graphic novel roots, there are a few sequences that use playful illustrations to convey a lot of information quickly, including just what goes into a traditional Christmas Eve feast, and it becomes a thoughtful device that elevates the film from run-of-the-mill to something more artful. Bolstered by charming performances from Gisondo and the entire ensemble (Lynn Cohen as family matriarch Nonnie is a particular treat), Tinnell manages to deliver something akin to a John Hughes classic without all that pesky misogyny, classism and racism that makes some films actually from the 1980s (and not just set then) quite troublesome today. Feast of the Seven Fishes may not become go-to holiday fare year after year; it’s not quite as moving or significant as the classics. But it’s certainly enjoyable enough to check out this time of year, its nostalgia and goodwill a perfect fit for the holiday season.
Feast of the Seven Fishes opens today at SMG Chatham.