At one time, you might have called Union Square a chamber piece, but since this no-budget film, which has its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, spends most of its time (and keeps its small cast) in one room in a contemporary Manhattan high-rise, condo piece is probably the more accurate descriptor.
In this case, the condominium is shared by Bill (Mike Doyle), a health and fitness devotee/small businessman, and his fiancée, Jenny (Tammy Blanchard). Jenny has been on the lam, so to speak, for the past three years from her dysfunctional family in the Bronx, most notably her suicidal mother (Patti LuPone) and Lucy, her scatterbrained, chain-smoking floozy of a sister (Mira Sorvino). Jenny, it seems, has snagged Bill on semi-false pretenses, in effect posing as this calm, collected, “yoga’d-out,” Whole Foods-loving creature from Maine.
It’s a jerry-built New Age paradise that threatens to collapse when, after years of estrangement, Lucy – the embodiment of everything Jenny thinks, hopes, prays she has left behind – suddenly shows up on her doorstep, asking to stay for a few days. “I need to take a break,” Lucy announces in her thick, shrill Bronx accent. “My nerves, they’re just shot.”
For the next 70 minutes, director Nancy Savoca – who turned heads almost a quarter-century ago when her first low-budget feature, True Love, about a Bronx wedding, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Fesitval – reveals just why Lucy is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Shot in a mere 12 days, the film also traces the sisters’ volatile relationship and the struggle of each to achieve some rapprochement against a backdrop of resentment, neglect and bad memories.
Union Square’s biggest flaw is its predictability. While there is the occasional surprise as Savoca artfully parcels out the various “reveals” in the narrative, it’s finally too schematic. Even with its twists, the viewer knows where Union Square is going pretty much from the moment a harried Sorvino steps off the subway in Manhattan and has a series of progressively uglier cellphone conversations with a married lover who has grown tired of the drama.
What redeems the film, somewhat, is the perfection of its tiny cast and the excellence of the dialogue. Admittedly, at times the 44-year-old Sorvino threatens to cross over into caricature as the bosomy, boozy, shrill-voiced, goodhearted New Yawk dame, but, thankfully, it never happens.
Moreover, despite the obvious contrasts in appearance and sensibility, the 1995 Oscar winner (for Mighty Aphrodite) and the talented Blanchard, who scored an Emmy in 2001 for her portrayal of Judy Garland, are thoroughly convincing as sisters too close to be apart, too scarred by history to be together.
Some may think that, at just over 80 minutes, Union Square is a touch too short for a commercial release. But, in fact, its brevity is one of its strengths. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is – a slice-o’-life domestic drama/dark comedy of manners savvy about its limits and sufficiently disciplined to keep its convolutions to a credible, impactful minimum.