Early on in “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” two characters debate the optimal way to decorate a house for Christmas. One favors an “understated” approach, with white lights and little more; the other argues that the holidays are no time for subtlety, advocating green, red and gold sparkle as far as the semi-blinded eye can see. Robert Tinnell’s cheery seasonal comedy plants its tinsel-encrusted flag firmly in the latter camp, warmly embracing corn and cliché as par for the festive course, and enlivening its familiar trappings with a specific Italian-American accent. Tangling various light familial and romantic exchanges over the course of one Christmas Eve in a snow-licked Rust Belt town, this easily digestible “Feast” is unlikely to join the holiday viewing canon, but the particularity of its focus on the eponymous, American-fried immigrant tradition is welcome: Any Christmas film that teaches us how to correctly soak baccala is more useful than most.
“Feast of the Seven Fishes” is the first feature in 19 years from West Virginia-based writer-director Tinnell, whose output as a graphic novelist is rather more prolific. Indeed, the film is adapted from one of his own comic strips, though only intermittently does the filmmaking playfully suggest such origins. A quickfire montage detailing the exact fishy composition of the feast in question — a seafood-based family banquet enjoyed the night before Christmas by most Italian-American families, kicked up a few notches from its more austere Southern Italian roots — is a rare formal flourish in an otherwise busy but homely affair.
The year is 1983, though notwithstanding the absence of cellphones, the period doesn’t feel especially vital to proceedings. This is evidently a direct nostalgia exercise for the filmmaker, whose personal relationship to his locale — a worn, utilitarian coal-mining community on the Monongahela River — is palpable. Peeling roadside bars and boxy houses are shot with a keener eye for space and detail than many equivalent exercises in Anywhere, America storytelling; sure enough, it turns out that many of the domestic scenes were shot in Tinnell’s own grandparents’ home. Marginal protagonist Tony (the appealing Skyler Gisondo, fresh from “Booksmart”) could use a change of scene, however: More creative and sensitive than most of his local peers, he yearns to go to art school in Pittsburgh, but daren’t tell his parents, who expect him to inherit the family grocery store.
Across town, WASPy college girl Beth (Madison Iseman) is home for the holidays and preparing for less raucous celebrations than Tony’s extended family. Ditched in favor of a skiing trip by her evident douchebag of a boyfriend, and left alone with her chilly, permanently twinset-clad mother, she’s taken out for a mood-lifting Christmas Eve of booze and pot with her best friend Sarah (Jessica Darrow), only to find herself paired with Tony on a chaotic double date. She’s charmed, in a “draw me like one of your Italian girls” way, as her mom warns her that “they’re not our kind of people”; he’s likewise head over heels, though lingering concern for his depressive, still torch-carrying ex Katie (Addison Timlin, making the most of a minimally conceived part) gets in the way. When Tony’s smalltime mafioso uncle Frankie (Joe Pantoliano, in ebullient Sopranos-with-a-smile mode) invites Beth to join their fishy feast, reaction in the family is mixed to the “cake eater” in their midst.
Will she turn up? Will love prevail over cultural difference? Will Christmas follow Christmas Eve? Surprises are in short supply here, but Tinnell’s film is more concerned with cultivating a general, slightly tipsy air of good feeling. In this it largely succeeds, thanks to the efforts of a jolly, well-meshed ensemble, some sparky banter amid the more sitcom-level dialogue, and a healthy (or perhaps not) side of oil-soaked food porn: Most of the actors here may wish for a closeup as loving as that afforded a golden platter of deep-fried shrimp. If a certain degree of pasta-fazool stereotyping comes with the territory — Tony even names Dean Martin among his favorite musicians, lest you wonder just what territory that may be — “Feast of the Seven Fishes” at least earns it with sincere, benevolent holiday spirit.