Little Odessa (1994)

Born of Russian immigrants in New York City, James Gray had his heritage in his blood. Watching his film one would swear his films are Russian, and perhaps they are and only by the fluke of nature are they made in America with American actors and an American crew. His first feature, Little Odessa, is his most distinctly Russian, with the kind of story and images the country evokes.

Set in the streets of Brooklyn, the Shapira family has been worn down to a thread. Arkady (Maximillian Schell) is distant, caught up in everything outside his family. Therefore, he fails to notice that his youngest, Reuben (Edward Furlong), hasn’t been attending school for months. Instead he wanders around or cares for his mother, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave), who is withering away from sickness. The frail family is shoved to the tipping point when Joshua (Tim Roth), the eldest and estranged son, returns to Brooklyn.

From there the film declines into the kind of world-weary drama one would expect. It hits a lot of the dramatic beats without the heavy, bombastic notes. The characters are far too worn for big theatrics, most of them simply resigning to the course of events. In that way it’s tragic to see how powerless all these characters are and watch the inevitable and inescapable decline.

Gray captures it with such a beauty and grace it’s enrapturing. The white-washed landscapes of bitterly cold snow and gray city landscapes are simultaneously depressing and romantic. Yet it’s the controlled interiors where Gray works the best. The soft muted tones give the image an earthly tone, further grounding it.

But Gray’s sense of violence is less graceful. Much like Joshua waving his gun about at the first sign of trouble, Gray seems to use the violence more as a way to cheaply grab attention than anything else. It’s usually quick, unexpected and shot without any presupposition of violence. It’s not bad; it just never has quite the effect he is going for.

Neither do the emotions the film tries to build. There’s this constant barrier to caring about the characters in the movie. Part if it may have to do with the acting, which is fine, but never stellar. Yet the characters themselves seem distant and cold. There are attempts at endearing them to the audience, mainly through the mother character, but it never invests the audience as much as it should. It’s still tragic and dramatic but not as much as it should be.

For a first feature Little Odessa is impressive. There’s a lot to be said for how much the film gets right with the mood and tone but it’s a bit rough around the edges, needing work on a couple of fronts. The groundwork is there; it can be seen in almost every scene.  Gray will go on to make amazing films built off the solid foundation he lays in this feature.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing