As independent films go in 2010, a movie called City Island sits at number four on the year’s biggest true indies, behind The Kids Are All Right but lumped in with the box-office totals of Cyrus, and Babies. The difference between City Island and the others, however, is that City Island hasn’t had the benefit of any marketing. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never seen a movie poster, never seen a trailer, and I’ve never seen an Internet or television ad (at least, until this week, when I saw an Internet ad for its DVD release). I’d never even heard of the film until it began appearing in my local movie listings last month. The fact that it managed to make $6 million plus, and stay in theaters for 23 weeks is a testament, I can only guess, to the real power of word of mouth. It sure as hell didn’t get by on its movie title.
My guess is that the word-of-mouth came from what is probably the second largest demographic among all independent films (save for indie horror): Old people. It’s different in L.A. and NYC, of course, where independent screenings generally draw large audiences. But out here, in the heartland, a typical screening of an independent film is often dominated by blue hairs looking for a way to kill a couple of hours (it’s a strangely untapped market). It’s bizarre to go into a screening of The Kids Are All Right or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, and be surrounded by senior citizens. But senior citizens talk.
That’s not to say that City Island won’t appeal to the average adult moviegoer, it’s just that given the choices, an older person is more likely to tell her neighbor about City Island before she tells her about that lesbian couple movie or the one where the computer hacker dildo rapes a guy.
City Island stars Andy Garcia in a role were not exactly used to seeing him in: Vince Rizzo, a good-natured but bicker-y family man who lives in City Island, New York and works as a prison guard. His family life is upended when Tony (Steven Straitt), the 24-year-old son that Vince abandoned before he was born, shows up in his prison. It’s the first, and biggest, of many secrets the family is holding. Vince brings Tony — who doesn’t know Vince is his father — home to serve out the final 30 days of Tony’s prison sentence, and there Tony becomes the center of all the family’s secrets. Vince, for instance, is taking acting classes, which his wife doesn’t know about. His wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies, who is exceptional here) is a legal secretary. She thinks Vince’s poker games are a cover for his affairs, and she has a little crush on Tony, who she has no idea is her step-son. Meanwhile, the daughter (Dominik García-Lorido) — home from college for spring break — is secretly earning money as a stripper. Finally, the gawky teenage son has a secret sexual fascination with obese women.
The plot description probably sounds closer to a Todd Solondz film, but it’s a much more endearing — and conservative — dysfunctional family film. It’s amiable, warm, and even veers into Neil Simon-esque dramatic farce near the end. It can feel a little contrived at times — as the secrets mount — but it’s brilliantly acted, anchored by Garcia, Margulies and their characters’ constant affectionate bickering, and Emily Mortimer, a friend and mentor to Vince in his acting class, which has Alan Arkin as a teacher.
City Island is not an original piece of filmmaking, and Raymond De Felitta — who has been writing and directing films I’ve never heard of for 20 years — isn’t much of a creative visionary. But he’s sure-handed and smart, and his City Island feels fresh in an indie world dominated by quirk and whimsy. It may not be a movie that you’ll love, but it’s a difficult film not to like.