Playfully caricatured performances and a great generosity of spirit in this funny and heartfelt feature.
Whatever “Union Square” may lack in originality and surprise, it thoroughly overcomes through playfully caricatured performances and a great generosity of spirit. Following a pair of vastly dissimilar Bronx-born sisters (Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard) who resolve their differences in the wake of their mother’s death, this funny and heartfelt feature, the first in nearly a decade from director Nancy Savoca (“Household Saints”), sticks closely to a single apartment in the titular Manhattan neighborhood, but expands its simple narrative to include a rare look at class-based pride and shame. Commercial prospects would appear modest, in keeping with the slender pic itself.
Starting in 1989 with her Sundance prize-winning indie “True Love,” Savoca’s keen focus on the struggles and triumphs of working-class New Yorkers has remained persistent even though “Union Square” is only her sixth feature and her first since the maid-in-Manhattan drama “Dirt” in 2003. As if taking measure of all that’s changed in communication (and hasn’t), Savoca’s latest opens with Sorvino’s strung-out Lucy, fresh off the subway from the Bronx, nervously typing and erasing plaintive text messages to Jay, the married business exec with whom she’s been sleeping.
Gradually discovering, amid compulsive shopping fits, that Jay won’t be interested in another hookup, the flamboyantly costumed, thickly accented Lucy alternately weeps and screams into her cell phone while stumbling through Union Square, momentarily testing the viewer’s patience as much as her former lover’s. With nowhere else to go, overbearing Lucy pays an unannounced visit to her estranged younger sister, the prim and proper Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), who runs a natural foods biz with her live-in fiance Bill (Mike Doyle) and has been quietly passing for upper-middle-class, telling Bill that her family is from Maine.
With the news from Lucy that their mother (seen in homemovies, wherein she’s played by Patti Lupone) has recently died of cancer, Jenny literally lets her hair down, startling Bill and presaging other changes that find her humorously reclaiming her working-class Italian roots. Savoca (who co-wrote the screenplay with Mary Tobler) makes it clear that, despite Lucy’s abrasively absurd demeanor, it’s Jenny who has been acting nutty by burying her identity under a crippling facade of well-to-do control. The sisters’ relationship is mirrored in a garish sibling reality show, scenes from which are interspersed throughout.
Beautifully shot in HD by Lisa Leone, “Union Square” is nothing if not schematic, but Savoca’s palpable love for her characters — combined with winning turns from Sorvino and Blanchard — results in a film whose warmth shines through its formula. Both Jenny and Lucy — as well as Bill — become unexpectedly sympathetic and even lovable as their class anxieties give way to a quirky sort of acceptance.
Tech credits appear sparkling in spite of the film’s small scale.