Quirky Coming of Age Dramedy “Sleeping With the Fishes” Paints Nuanced Portrait of Jewish-Latino Upbringing
Director and screenwriter Nicole Gomez Fisher’s star is on the rise. Possessing a distinctive, quirky style that simultaneously lends itself well to indie films and suggests mainstream potential, she pulls off a deft balance between light humor and meaningful exploration of serious themes with her debut feature film. Sleeping With the Fishes has yielded a number of awards, including one for Best New Director at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Sleeping With the Fishes, a charming coming-of-age story and family drama about a Latino-Jewish family living in Brooklyn, has won considerable acclaim from critics and audiences alike and promises to make a big splash when it is released in the coming months. The film stars Gina Rodriguez, referred to by The Hollywood Reporter as “the next big thing” and named one of “the top Latinos under 35.” Rodriguez has drawn consistent praise from numerous publications since her breakout performance as the title character in Filly Brown, shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Sleeping With the Fishes will screen at the JCC in Manhattan on May 13th at 7:30 PM. It will cost $9 for members and $11 for nonmembers.
Sometimes a new perspective on something familiar can be as revelatory as an audacious cinematic experiment. Sleeping With the Fishes does not seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather to tell a touching and insightful story about personal growth and family dynamics with a unique twist: the family in question is Latino and Jewish. Yet despite a revealing exploration of the culture clash such a situation presents, its colorful cast of characters confronts themes and situations that anyone can relate to.
Protagonist Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez) is a bright, bubbly bundle of charm, but it is clear from the get-go that she’s not in a good place. Struggling with a career in party planning that refuses to take off, Alexis, like so many 20-somethings in today’s economy, is stagnating. But her problems run deeper than an unfulfilling career. She has not come to terms with the death of her husband and struggles with body-image issues instilled by her hyper-judgmental, weight-obsessed mother, Estella, played by Tony-award-winning actress Priscilla Lopez (Maid in Manhattan, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise and the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line). The Fish family matriarch means well, but her classical notions of femininity, a product of a strict Catholic upbringing in Puerto Rico, prevent her from accepting Alexis for who she is.
Estella’s constant barbs are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, an example of Sleeping With the Fishes’ use of humor to highlight cutting truths. Estella’s criticism of her daughter’s weight goes beyond the numbers on the scale, representing both a mother’s disapproval and the general insecurity it instills in her daughter. Lopez conveys Estella’s harsh exterior while betraying periodic glimpses of the tenderness underneath. Gina Rodriguez is a revelation. Her heartfelt sincerity and disarming, self-protective wit seem so natural that it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor.
This mother-daughter relationship between Alexis and Estella makes up the emotional core of the film, but the supporting characters are also deep and well portrayed. Doting father Dr. Leonard Fish, played by Tibor Feldman (The Devil Wears Prada, Enchanted), is the easygoing mediator, providing Alexis with the unconditional support that her mother cannot. Manic, comic-book-obsessed sister Kayla, played by Anna Ortiz (Ugly Betty, Devious Maids), is committed to keeping her sister on the right track despite some considerable issues of her own. Meanwhile, love interest Dominic Sebastiani, portrayed by Steven Strait (City Island, Magic City) is alternately masculine and vulnerable; it is easy to see why Alexis succumbs to his charms. The couple is excellent and one wishes Fisher had more time to flesh out their relationship.
Fisher never resorts to beating her audience over the head through pretentious speeches or heavy-handed imagery when dealing with the film’s multicultural themes. Instead, she allows her characters’ personalities and relationships to speak for themselves. Sleeping With the Fishes is not a “Hispanic movie” or a “Jewish movie,” or even a “Hispanic and Jewish movie.” It’s a movie about a family, consisting of real people who are impacted but never defined by their backgrounds. They’re a neurotic bunch, but trust me, you definitely want to meet them.