A dreamy lark of a movie shot piecemeal between July 2018 and April of the following year, Adam Leon’s “Italian Studies” may be set along (and expertly stolen from) the crowded sidewalks of London and New York, but it’s unmistakably suffused with the woozy dislocation and “we have to make something” life-force of a COVID film. No one is wearing masks or social distancing in the heat of lower Manhattan on a summer afternoon, yet Leon’s heroine — a successful author played by Vanessa Kirby at a time just before people on the street would recognize her as one of the gutsiest actresses of her generation, or as anyone at all — is lost in a fugue state that vividly reflects the isolation and uncertainty of the last 18 months.
Alina Reynolds (Kirby) can’t tell if she’s in crisis, or if she’s just confused. She can’t tell if she remembers the world around her and the strangers she finds in it, or if she’s just imagining them. Maybe they’re memories, or characters from the book of short stories that launched her career, or kernels of the novel she’s just starting to write in her head. In lieu of a linear narrative, Alina’s hazy trip down the rabbit-hole and back is largely held together by the vague sense that self-identity is shaped by the people we meet, and the places where we happen to meet them. From the negative image of that idea emerges a question many of us have been asking ourselves since “Italian Studies” wrapped: Is it possible to be anyone in isolation?
If Leon’s earlier New York stories — particularly the breezy one-two punch of “Gimme the Loot” and “Tramps” — paved the way for the street-level realness that grounds his latest film, none of his plot-forward previous work predicted something this loopy or elusive. We first meet Alina in a London recording studio where she wordlessly radiates the confidence of someone young and beautiful and in full command of themselves. She knows who she is. In that light, it’s easy to appreciate her confusion when a teenage girl comes up to her and insists they know each other — that they hung out with a group of kids in New York one summer. She’s sure of it. How can Alina not remember?
That question is left unanswered (this is not a movie where someone’s memory loss is explained by a trip to the ER and some curious MRIs), but “Italian Studies” dekes back in time to show us when the amnesia started. We see Alina walk into a Chelsea hardware store one afternoon, and then… well, that’s really all there is to it. She just forgets herself. Her mind is etch-a-sketched blank, much to the chagrin of the little dog she leaves tied up on the street outside.
From there, the film surveils Kirby (with the help of Brett Jutkiewicz’s long lenses, hordes of oblivious extras, and a seemingly generative ambient score from the brilliant Nicholas Britell) as she wanders the city like a blinkered alien who’s never been there before. The disquieting mix of fame and uncertainty suggests a less carnivorous version of Scarlett Johansson’s character in “Under the Skin,” though it’s unclear if some of the people Alina encounters are “real,” or if everyone is just made to seem that way.
Regardless, the film’s teenage cast is so believable that everyone around them feeds off their verisimilitude; we might even forget that Kirby is famous if not for the fact that Alina has a fanbase of her own. But the most important person she meets only knows her as another lost soul. His name is Simon (Simon Brickner, a major find whom Leon met when directing a live show called “The All-City Hour Variety Hour”). He’s something of a toothy cross between Lucas Hedges and Buddy Duress, and he comes up to Alina at a desolate Papaya Dog with an offer to sell her hot dogs and weed when really they’re both interested in company. He’s an unthreatening teen as desperate for direction as she is, but Alina is so emptied and guileless that you sense she would go with him even if it seemed unsafe. They wander the streets talking about bad parents and black-hole futures, and at some point we realize it’s winter.
The timeline begins to drip apart like one of Dali’s clocks. What season was it when Maya Hawke (seamlessly blending into the less familiar cast) went to that Let’s Eat Grandma concert? Was Alina there to be dazzled by singer-songwriter Annabel Hoffman, or is that something she only saw through the eyes of one of her characters? Are we back in the New York of “Kids,” or is this movie too warm, too supportive, too “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” for that? It’s easy enough to understand that the interview scenes where Leon’s young cast discuss their hopes and dreams straight into the camera are somehow unreal — visions from inside Alina’s creative process. But they spill over into the rest of the film in ways that seem deliberately hard to track.
“Italian Studies” isn’t a puzzle to be solved nor a slipstream that resists interpretation at every turn, though Leon’s catch-as-catch-can approach requires a certain amount of confusion in order to let your logical brain off the hook. If movies teach you how to watch them, this one instructs viewers to let go and make their own connections. Sometimes, especially in the second half when the mutual need between Alina and Simon comes to an unexpected boil, you can feel Leon self-sabotaging his new film in an effort not to fall back on old habits; you can feel him making “Italian Studies” more opaque than it needs to be so that he doesn’t get distracted by the same kind of unbalanced romance he already knows so well.
This is a film about an artist who forgets herself, made by an artist trying to do the same, and with the help of an actress looking for an anchor of truth to hold onto right when the tides of stardom are threatening to pull her out to sea. Those agendas don’t always serve each other well or meaningfully dovetail with the self-discovery that Leon’s teenage cast is on the cusp of experiencing themselves. Despite the mesmeric pleasures of “Italian Studies,” this 70-minute wisp leaves you with the nagging sense that its means deserved more significant ends — that Leon vibes off of Hong Sang-soo, early Wong Kar-wai, and Milos Forman’s “Taking Off” (among other influences cited in the press notes) without ever quite arriving at his own thing.
For a young filmmaker who’s never had trouble expressing a voice of his own, it’s both admirable and frustrating to watch him silently listen for new harmonies in a project born from the opportunity to collaborate with Kirby and reverse-engineered from there. For her part, Kirby is so magnetic and half-opened as a woman who’s forgotten everything besides her own force of will that no one will ever second-guess why Leon agreed to work with her before he even had an idea of what they would make together.
And, in its own diffuse and semi-engaging way, “Italian Studies” resolves as a clear testament to those connections — to the feeling that we all borrow ourselves from each other. The film’s best scene finds Alina reading her own book in a library (with an amnesiac’s sense of discovery) and then, in a moment of pride, signing the inside cover when she’s done. An over-eager man chides her for it, refusing to back down even after he learns that Alina’s the author. “It’s not your book or my book,” he says of the defaced public resource. “It’s our book.” She doesn’t necessarily love how the guy is talking to her, but she knows his words will find their way into whatever she writes next.
“Italian Studies” premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.