Disarming and delightful, the sleeper indie comedy “Feast of the Seven Fishes” proves anew that the most universal storytelling is also the most specific. If your parents or grandparents were immigrants to the United States, you’re likely to recognize your family here, no matter what holiday you celebrate or what elaborate meals you cook to mark the occasion.
Writer-director Robert Tinnell, adapting his and Alex Saviuk’s graphic novel of the same name, takes some cues from “Diner” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and filters them through the Christmas and coming-of-age genres. But what makes “Feast” special is the details of character and time and place; many of the film’s biggest laughs spring not from one-liners or pratfalls but from recognizable human moments.
Set in 1983 in the Rust Belt, the film follows Tony (Skyler Gisondo, “Booksmart”) through a holiday season that’s going to change his life. Studying business and working in his parents’ store, Tony dreams of going to art school — his painting is considered a hobby — but worries about breaking away from family expectations. His cousin’s girlfriend sets him up on a blind date with the non-Italian and non-Catholic Beth (Madison Iseman, “Annabelle Comes Home”), and their whirlwind courtship encourages him to expand the horizons of his world.
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To the film’s credit, Beth is no unattainable blonde dream girl. She, too, is chafing against family expectations; her parents sent her off to private school (which is why she and Tony never met before, despite their growing up in the same town) and then the Ivy League, but they’re clearly more interested in her marital prospects than in her education. It’s no wonder the two of them find kinship so quickly.
Tony’s dreams and his wooing of Beth take up just a corner of “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” however, which also introduces us to members of Tony’s extended family (made up of character actor vets, including Joe Pantoliano, Lynn Cohen and Paul Ben-Victor) as they scramble to prepare the titular Christmas meal, an elaborate affair that includes codfish, shrimp, oysters, smelts and calamari on the menu. (“Calling it ‘The Feast of Seven Kinds of Seafood’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Tony explains.)
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The attention to detail here is impressive, from the minutiae of 1983 winterwear and soft drinks to the look of Christmas decorations in the era before lawn inflatables and LED lights. Tinnell is equally attentive to his characters, avoiding stereotypes at all times; we think we know what we’re getting from Tony’s old-country grandma (Cohen) or the local braniac (Juke, played by Josh Helman of “Wayward Pines”) or Tony’s clingy ex Katie (Addison Timlin), but each one of them gets a moment to reveal their humanity and, in holiday-movie tradition, the best sides of themselves.
The characters played by Gisondo (as winningly charming here as in “Booksmart,” although with a completely different character) and Iseman have to pull off love at first sight with both each other and the audience, and they’re both charismatic enough to get us instantly on their sides. Iseman (terrific this year in the underseen “Riot Girls”) also pulls off playing an outsider in a way that never feels condescending, or that she’s a cultural tourist.
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Cinematographer Jamie Thompson (“The Decline of Western Civilization Part III”) totally nails the region’s legendary concrete-colored winter skies, while production designer Jason Baker makes the home and retail spaces feel both lived-in and festive. With so many cable Christmas movies shot in July, there’s something special about a film set in Pennsylvania in December (it was shot in West Virginia) where you can see everyone’s breath.
One of my favorite kinds of Christmas movie is the boisterous family comedy, one that doesn’t offer major stakes in the plot but does capture the feeling of a full house of well-fed people bouncing off each other. “Feast of the Seven Fishes” brought back very specific memories of growing up in just such a home.