Reeling back to 1959, “Wrestling With Alligators” is a coming-of-age saga steeped in wry nostalgia. Filmmaker Laurie Weltz expresses extremely limited affection for the bygone era, other than for what it portends about the future, and this attitude elevates the modest tale. Still, the female bonding story is a bit too gentle to galvanize more than modest niche appeal theatrically. It should find a more receptive audience on TV and cable, both at home and internationally.
Set in a seaside New Jersey town, pic centers on teenager Maddy Hawkins (Aleksa Palladino) and the denizens of Lulu’s Look Out, a women-only rooming house run by a former silent-screen actress (Claire Bloom). As the film opens, Maddy’s best friend, Mary (Adrienne Shelly), is being feted with a wedding party prior to her departure for married life in Colorado. Maddy feels abandoned, and Mary’s gift of her “lucky dress” does little to soften the blow.
Maddy, who works at a local garage, is at an awkward age. The harsh Florida home life she escaped has toughened her, and she’s only just beginning to realize her femininity. Still, she’s blessed because of the nurturing environment of Lulu’s house.
Essentially, two key narrative threads evolve. Maddy has her first brush with the opposite sex when she meets Will (Sam Trammell), an itinerant carnival worker. And she’s drawn into the plight of fellow roomer Claire (Joely Richardson), a widowed French war bride who’s pregnant by good-natured garage owner Rick (Jay O. Sanders), whom she does not love.
Weltz, who co-wrote the script with Scott Kraft, directs the piece with the sort of conviction that suggests some personal connection to the material. That’s apparent in the pic’s attention to detail, particulary in its most vivid section, which concerns Claire’s trip to an abortionist, accompanied by Maddy.
“Wrestling With Alligators” needs more sequences of this nature and intensity. Too often the film ventures into territory whose familiarity no amount of subtlety or texture can overcome. The pic would also benefit from some well-appointed trims to pick up its pace.
Palladino, of “Manny & Lo,” gives a winning performance in a cast of seasoned vets. There’s not a false note on the talent side, and that’s certainly to Weltz’s credit. Though the script falters at times, the direction is adroit, and tech credits, especially the camerawork of Richard Dallett and Pam Shamshiri’s bright, pastel-palette production design, are first-rate.