While we’re watching Leo dog-paddle through a manure pit he filled up all by himself, there’s a much more interesting and fresh story happening in the background about a modestly talented high school basketball player who discovers, while suffering and flailing through his first serious relationship, that he enjoys cathartically writing about what he’s going through, and has a particular knack for poetry. To its credit, the film does see that there’s a good story in a couple of decent kids who aren’t fated to be together and the role that the crisis plays in convincing one of the kids to take a long look at himself, and ask whether what he really wants from life is to live his father’s fantasy. But it’s too little, too late.
There’s nothing outwardly remarkable about this movie, but it starts to seem incredibly weird when you think about the plot and how drastically the tone of the midsection clashes with what precedes and follows it. Romano is potentially a very good director of lifelike real-world comedy and drama. The film starts as a life-sized East Coast ethnic family story with a hard edge and a lot of heart, one that pitches its audience net as broadly as possible without being untrue to the characters. You get a pretty good handle on who they are very early in the story, and after that, you’re on the lookout for situations that could bring out the worst in each of them, just as you might with members of your own family.
Romano doesn’t seem to have put much thought into what shots mean, together or combined with other shots, which would’ve made this film a visual and a narrative experience. But he has a natural rapport with actors, plus good taste; he seems to know how to push on performers to push their limits but not too far. The characters are big, but the performances don’t over-inflate them. Romano also seems to have a veteran stage and sitcom comedian’s instinct to time a joke or an awkward moment so that it doesn’t so much happen as pop, like a party snap firecracker. The family dinners, especially, have a core of instability that’s exciting and unpleasant in a real way. You never know when somebody will needle somebody else a bit too hard, causing the other person to launch into a profane tirade that has the elder generation covering their ears and crossing themselves.
There’s a good movie in Romano the feature filmmaker, but this isn’t it. He misunderstands the specialness of his own film just as Leo misunderstands the specialness of Sticks.
Now playing in theaters.