Wow. The first surprise of the Tribeca Film Festival for 2018 is this drama. “All About Nina” is a true gut punch of a movie. Blisteringly funny, unexpectedly emotional, and filled with justified anger, there’s a lot to say within the picture. Buoyed by the best work of Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s career, you can’t help but be impressed by this film. In fact, it’s shocking that “All About Nina” is still seeking distribution. A company like A24 could really do wonders with this one. It’s possible that a third act revelation is holding back buyers, but if so, that’s a shame. Not only is this the best of the fest so far, it’s among the best of 2018 overall.
“All About Nina” has more up its sleeve than you’d expect at first glance. Initially, it seems like a dark comedy about a bitter young comic. Then, it introduces a sweet, if also pretty dirty, romantic element to the mix. The film would be great if it only was about that, but then, we get a moment of confession that rocks you to your core. At the Tribeca press screening, there was even a walkout in the aftermath of that scene. The moment is just that powerful. For my money though, it’s part of what elevates the movie to a special place, above and beyond the rest of the festival fare so far.
Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comic in New York, one who has an aggressive on stage persona, one only matched by her hard edge off the stage. Funny, provocative, and increasingly successful, Nina’s career is showing signs of launching into the big leagues. Her personal life, however, is another story entirely. She exclusively opts for one night stands, except for the occasions where her abusive (and married) cop ex Joe (Chace Crawford) shows up unannounced. After one such encounter, she has the bruises on the outside to match the pain on the inside. With that, she opts to finally move to California, where a potentially lucrative audition has been awaiting her.
On the west coast, she initially finds the culture annoying and ripe for mockery. Then, she meets Rafe (Common) after a set. He’s kind, manly, sensitive, and eager to get to know her. Essentially, he’s the opposite of who she normally hops into bed with. Slowly, her walls begin to break down, suggesting a potential future for them. Of course, that won’t come easy, especially when Nina begins to self-sabotage. That doesn’t even include a moment where she reveals the source of her anger to the world. That will take your breath away.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserves an Academy Award nomination for this performance. “All About Nina” would not be the same without her. A comic with a fear of intimacy, a performer who vomits after their act, these are not inherently original concepts. Winstead, however, shows you them in a way that’s wholly unique. Laid bare at times both emotionally as well as physically, Winstead is asked to do it all. Two very different stand up routines showcase this as well. One is her aggressive, sexualized act, which is meant to put up a wall. The other is a full-blown confession, which is unlike any other stand up set you’ll ever see. It has stayed with me in a big way. If there was any justice, that would be her Oscar scene. Simply put, Winstead has always been a talented actress (“Smashed,” among many other examples), but this is career best work.
Casting Common opposite Winstead is another home run. His low key charisma and charm are essential in making Rafe someone who could bring down Nina’s guard. The character has an even-keeled tone to him that’s instantly recognizable. The chemistry that Common has with Winstead is almost palpable, both as friends as well as lovers. They’re one of the year’s best screen pairs. The first night they spend together at his house is a perfect blend of comedy and intimacy. Supporting players like Beau Bridges, Kate del Castillo, Clea DuVall, and Camryn Manheim make the most of their screen time as well. In addition to the above-cited Chase Crawford, small parts also go to Melonie Diaz, Todd Louiso, and Jay Mohr.
Filmmaker Eva Vives makes a bold feature directorial debut here. The aforementioned change in tone is a risky move, especially when the initial elements would make for a dark crowd pleaser. Vives is hardly interested in something that simple though, so she ups the ante. Of course, having this brilliant turn from Winstead helps make it work. Not just any actress could pull of what she asks her to do. Credit as well for believing in Common for this part. That pairing is one of many successes to be found in the movie. Vives’ direction heavily focuses on facial expressions and lingers on her cast, creating a terrific sense of intimacy. Mix that with her sharp screenplay and you have something truly memorable.
If you love Winstead, “All About Nina” will blow you away. The cream of the Tribeca crop right now, it could very well hold tight to a spot on my year-end top ten list when all is said and done. It’s that good. The film won’t be for everyone, but it’s powerful and special. You won’t get what you expect with “All About Nina,” and that’s part of what makes it so masterful.