Holiday movies, especially Christmas movies, tend to be high-concept affairs, featuring guardian angels, kid-made booby traps, or ghosts haunting a miserly old man. Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of the rare Christmas movies about nothing crazier than a family’s Yuletide traditions. The film is an evocation of a particular place and time that is unabashedly nostalgic, yet seeks to be relevant and relatable by presenting the characters’ experiences as honestly as it can. In this way, writer-director Robert Tinnell makes the film more personal than cloying or pandering. Some tonal missteps aside, Feast is a Christmas movie with genuine warmth and heart.
It’s Dec. 23, 1983, and the predominately Italian-American old mining town of Fairmont, W.V., is getting ready for the titular feast, where a ton of seafood is eaten with friends and family the night before Christmas. Tony (Booksmart’s Skyler Gisondo) dreams of pursuing his love of painting at art school, but is seemingly destined to take over running his family’s deli. His cousin Angelo (Andrew Schulz) convinces him to go out to a local dive bar for pre-holiday drinking, which turns out to be a setup for a double date with Angelo’s carefree girlfriend Sarah (Jessica Darrow) and her friend just home from college, Beth (Jumanji’s Madison Iseman). Beth is what Tony’s family calls a “cake eater,” a girl from a rich family attending private school. She herself is sick of her wealthy, conceited boyfriend and her family’s lack of holiday celebrations, and when she and Tony hit it off while he explains the tradition of the feast to her, she starts thinking such a celebration (and the boy inviting her to it) is too enticing to pass up. Beth, Tony, Tony’s lonely friend Juke (Josh Helman), and the rest of Tony’s family (including a trio of uncles played by Italian-American character actors extraordinaire Paul-Ben Victor, Joe Pantoliano, and Ray Abruzzo) all converge at the family home to eat, lovingly rip on each other, and sort through a number of familial and interpersonal issues.
Tinnell keeps the film grounded at nearly every turn, an approach that works more often than it falters. The cinematography by Jamie Thompson does a great job of evoking the cool exteriors and warm interiors of the East Coast in December, yet Tinnell’s blocking is typically a mixture of rote shot-on-digital indie and bland sitcom. It’s an odd visual approach given the film’s more eye-catching beginnings as a newspaper strip-style graphic novel, also written by Tinnell. The more low-key look of the movie does help emphasize the focus on the characters, however, and Tinnell’s script does a fantastic job of juggling a large ensemble. Each major character is given equal screen time, making the film feel well-rounded. The ‘80s setting isn’t used for cheap reference gags but instead for creating a genuine feeling of nostalgia.
The retro mood of the film is found in its sometimes dated sense of humor, and that’s just one part of the film’s uneven tone. Feast is the type of movie that wants to be charming while being honest about the racial, ethnic, and gender issues of the period, and it’s better at the former than the latter — there’s one scene with an African-American friend of the family that feels like Tinnell saw last year’s Green Book and decided he could do that entire movie in two minutes. The script treats Tony like such a paragon of virtue that the character, who is clearly modeled on a young Tinnell, comes off nearly hagiographic, his actions not really criticized until the end of the film, and even that moment feels too subtle. There’s also a weird thread involving Pantoliano’s uncle, who the movie heavily hints is a mobster, yet treats those moments as Disney-style quirks, making them perversely more disturbing within such an otherwise warm movie.
Despite these flaws (and partially because of them), Tinnell has made a film that feels so personal that it’s more endearing than anything else. It manages to capture both the youthful romantic (and, er, not-so-romantic) longing that occurs around the holidays, as well as the reflective and thankful mood that strikes the older generations. It also portrays the stressful busy work of tradition with affection, evoking the feeling of familiarity that comes with having to do the cooking and cleaning and the like, chores made better knowing that you’re doing them for and with a loving family. Feast of the Seven Fishes is essentially a cinematic Christmas card — a little embarrassing, a little oversharing, but still charmingly personal. It may not be a new holiday classic, but there’s something here to like for just about everyone. Well, maybe not the fishes.