Parental Guidance Suggested, by Jack Fleischer
Mighty Fine is the story of a Jewish family from Brooklyn that moves to New Orleans in the early seventies. Written and directed by Debbie Goodstein, the movie is billed as “inspired” by her life. The charm of this film comes from the feeling that it’s true to life. But it’s this dedication to the “truth” that may be keeping it from being a cohesive film.
The movie begins as a coming of age story for the family’s youngest daughter, Natalie Fine, played by Jodelle Ferland (The Cabin in the Woods, Twilight: Eclipse). As the Fine family’s trip to Louisiana begins, so does the film’s ever present voice-over. It’s the voice of an adult Natalie (Janeane Garofalo) reflecting. We know that something life-changing is going to happen.
I can say that Ferland delivers a nice performance as the naïve innocent Natalie. I also feel that the voice-over isn’t overpowering, even though it is ever present. Here the perspective of adulthood genuinely adds significant counterpoint to the younger’s immediate reactions.
What gets sticky is when the story shifts focus from the youngest “Fine” to her older sister, Mother, and Father. Suddenly the voice-over seems out of place, and in the end, distracting.
The story soon becomes less about Natalie, and more about the father, Joe Fine (Chazz Palminteri). The story drifts into Joe’s life, away from Natalie, but we never really see things from Joe’s perspective. It’s as if we’ve been pulled out of Natalie’s head, and suddenly been forced into the director’s head. The deviation becomes jarring.
We then drift into the story of older sister Maddie (Rainey Qualley), and mother Stella (Andie MacDowell). In a surprise turn, I must compliment MacDowell in her role as a Polish Holocaust survivor. Maybe I’m completely off base, but it feels like she did a fair job capturing the culture shock and confusion of a mother dealing with daughters who come from an alien world. Qualley, in what appears to be her first role, seems headed for a decent career.
While I might enjoy the acting and the people in Mighty Fine, the problem is that this story doesn’t come together. Each character is a part of the same family, but they don’t always seem to have the same direction. This leads to an ending that almost seems like an after thought. It’s as if everyone agreed to just stop filming at some point.
Frankly, as much as the voice-over is entertaining — by singling out Natalie it may be what’s pulling this film apart.
I’m sure Mighty Fine will speak to certain people. This is a film about the awkwardness of youth, and the scary instability that parents often impose on children while they are in pursuit of their own stability. This is a movie that can be summed up by one scene in a motorboat. Chaz Palmanteri insists to his family that he knows how to drive a boat because it’s “just like driving a car.” Obviously, it’s not, and there are echoes of how sometimes parents think being an adult is as simple as “driving a car.”
This feels like it’s based on a very personal story. What’s more, it feels like a story based on the life of Natalie Fine. Yet this film is really about how the entire Fine family functions together. It’s this fight between telling the Fines’ story, and telling Natalie’s story, that ultimately handicaps Mighty Fine.