Destiny Frasqueri (better known to her Generation Z fans as Nuyorican rapper Princess Nokia) makes a winning, delicate screen debut in “Angelfish,” a low-key Bronx romance that proves a surprisingly muted vehicle for her outsize performing charisma. As Eva, a hard-up, lovelorn daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, torn between familial responsibilities and a more creative, romantic life of her own, she’s fresh and unaffected on camera, retaining just enough streetwise edge from her musical persona to skirt floaty ingenue cliché. As an arrival for writer-director Peter Lee, however, “Angelfish” is slightly less persuasive: Its cross-cultural romance between Eva and Brendan (Jimi Stanton), a white high-school dropout from a broken home, feels more invested in place than character, higher on woozy summer-in-the-city atmospherics than it is on clear dramatic stakes.
Clearly made with tenderness, “Angelfish” recalls in its best moments such films as Peter Sollett’s “Raising Victor Vargas” and, more recently, Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” in its spotlighting of communities that rarely get a fair shake in New York cinema — it’s just that the writing rarely feels quite as perceptive and connected to its subjects as Jamal Solomon’s fluid, velvet-textured camerawork. Its boy-meets-girl story traces a familiar arc from the off, with obstacles and resolutions that feel palpably script-enforced, not born of real life’s wear and tear. Even at a modest 96 minutes, proceedings feel sparse, while there often appears to be more drama sparking in the leads’ curtailed family crises than in their somewhat thin love story.
Eva and Brendan first lay eyes on each other at the Marble Hill supermarket where he works behind the deli counter: a meat-cute, if you will, though Lee’s script is at least pleasingly short on rom-com tweeness. Not exactly gifted in the sweet-talk department, shy but steadfast Brendan instead makes an impression by curtly dismissing another customer for harassing Eva on her grocery rounds. When he coincidentally bumps into her later at the movies and insists on buying her snacks, he’s too gauchely earnest to see that he may be just as much of a pest, but she’s guardedly won over.
A cautious courtship begins, though they do their best to keep it from their respective families. Eva’s loving but harried single mother (Rosie Berrido) expects her daughter to dedicate herself entirely to providing for her own household, pressuring her to begin accountancy studies at college and to care for her severely disabled brother — a path that diverges significantly from Eva’s dream of becoming an actress. Brendan, meanwhile, would give anything for a mother who cares one whit what he does with his life: The one he has (Erin Davie) is an alcoholic who lives only for regular jaunts to Atlantic City, leaving her eldest flailingly in charge of his delinquent younger brother Conor (Stanley Simons), who appears to be on a one-way track to juvie.
There’s clearly much individual pain and social anger in the margins of “Angelfish,” though it never comes wholly to the fore. In each other, our young lovers find the kind of stateless sanctuary that, for stolen afternoons at a time, makes their litany of external problems melt away: transfixing for them, but less urgently compelling for the viewer, who can see the fault lines and bridging points in their relationship some way ahead. Despite Stanton’s sincere, likeable presence, it’s hard not to wish Brendan, in particular, had a few more cracks in his makeup: He’s such an unfailingly good guy that the character occasionally retreats into blandness. Even the romance, painted as it is in soft, intimate strokes throughout, never quite works up any urgent sensuality: “Angelfish” and its lovers alike could stand to let loose.
This easy-to-take film’s pleasures, then, lie chiefly in its relaxed evocation of place and time. Set in 1993, though it could just as easily work in a contemporary setting, “Angelfish” wisely doesn’t go all in on period kitsch, though music and costuming are both deployed to evoke a pre-internet, arguably gentler era of youth. Without flashing any obvious Big Apple landmarks on screen, meanwhile, Lee and Solomon languidly depict an oft-unseen New York that nonetheless — from the gauzy late-summer light to the particular cultural collage of the Bronx streets — couldn’t be anywhere else.