“Do you remember me?”
It’s an innocent enough question, asked by a young woman sitting outside a recording studio in London. The flicker of panic that plays across the face of the person on the receiving end of it, however — a thirtysomething named Alina (Vanessa Kirby) — suggests something a little darker is lurking behind the answer. The teen had been staring at her while two shoegaze-y singers laid down a track inside, and now, sharing a cig with the Alina in the alley, she suggests that they have met before. There was a party in Manhattan. The older woman has shown up alongside an awkward kid named Simon. They hung out all night. That was her, right?
Alina seems perplexed, a little casually put-off, then slightly worried. “Was this when I lost my dog?” she asks. Once upon a time in downtown New York, Alina left her apartment to take her scruffy little pooch for a walk and stopped by a hardware store. Browsing the shelves, she pauses for a second…and it’s as if someone has pressed the Control-Alt-Delete button on her brain. She has no idea who she is, where she’s at, what she was looking for. In a blink, Alina has inexplicably turned into a blank slate. She wanders out of the shop, away from her dog, away from whatever her life was before her mental blip. So she just walks through the streets of the West Village, a lost soul in a big city with no direction home….
There are many, many movies that have used amnesia as a one-stop-shopping dramatic cliché, or an easy source of conflict, pathos or pity. Adam Leon’s Italian Studies is one of the few — the only? — films to force viewers into a disassociative mindset right alongside its main character. (At least, one of the few without the words “directed by David Lynch” attached to it.) It isn’t just that viewers have no idea who this woman really is, though pieces of the puzzle eventually do fall into place. It’s more that we’re pushed into this lo-fi mystery on her terms, and prompted to see so much of the world through her uncomprehending eyes.
The attack is two-pronged: Leon’s filmmaking takes on the fractured, free-flowing anxiety of a bad dream, helped immensely by the film’s stream-of-conscious approach to editing, sound design that suggests a radio transmission stuck between stations and composer Nicholas Britell’s droning, synth-heavy score. Meanwhile, Kirby’s performance gives you the sense that this person is truly in a fugue state, reacting to things completely in the moment while trying to mask her condition to those she encounters. There’s an almost childlike sense of wonder and confusion as Alina tries remember something, anything, about her identity. Even those who’ve charted the British actor’s career from Princess Margaret on The Crown to Mission: Impossible action heroine to that gutting portrayal of a grief-stricken mother in Pieces of a Woman will be surprised by what she’s doing here. It’s a completely raw, guileless, ego-less performance.
It’s in Italian Studies’ first half, when the filmmaker and his star seem to truly be working in tandem to give you a woman on the verge of an existential breakdown, that the movie turns into something that’s almost experiential, immersing you in this character’s wobbly, unstable world. Leon has been a fringe player on the microbudget side of the Amerindie world, but he’s a vital one: Both Gimme the Loot (2012) and Tramps (2016) give you an incredible sense of New York from a street-level, round-the-way perspective without posturing or pursuing agendas at the expense of storytelling. His latest ups the ante by turning downtown Manhattan into something that’s simultaneously familiar and foreign — sometimes a wonderland, sometimes a menace, always a place where a bodega clerk or a cranky library patron or a knucklehead kid hustling at the Chelsea Papaya hot dog joint will go with whatever flow the bewildered Alina brings.
Right, the knucklehead kid. That’s Simon, who tries to sell Alina several hot dogs he bought because he’s gluten-intolerant. Played by Simon Brickner, who Leon met when he collaborated on a variety show with a bunch of other high school-age youngsters, this stranger is both remarkably socially awkward and has a nonstop patter that would impress a Three-card Monte dealer. The scenes between the two of them have an oft-kilter feel that adds to the through-the-looking-glass vibe, which eventually transition into both of them hanging out with a crew of funky, creative teens. From that point, the movie slides into something else entirely, a kind of rough mix of testimonials and a documentary-like ride along that’s so loosely stitched together it keeps threatening to unravel before your eyes. The thrill pivots from wondering if this person can make it through the night to whether the movie can hold itself together until the end credits, which is an admittedly less engaging prospect.
Yet for a long stretch, Italian Studies turns this trip down memory-loss lane into a low-wattage livewire, an unpredictable stroll into the unknown. Its hero will slowly, eventually come back around to remembering her life before the reset. The movie itself, however, is unforgettable from the jump.