“Allswell” is one of those rare movies that feels less like a cinematic presentation and more like a personal invitation into someone’s home. There’s no pageantry, no fuss; they didn’t even clean the place up for you. You’re going to get to know everyone better, they’re not going to hide their unflattering sides, and by the end you’ll feel peaceful and welcome.
Directed by Ben Snyder, it’s the story of two sisters, Daisy (Elizabeth Rodriguez, “Orange is the New Black”) and Ida (Liza Colón-Zayas, “In Treatment”), and their sister-in-law Serene (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Daisy, about to adopt a child from a young mother who advertised on Craigslist, co-owns a restaurant with no small amount of drama attached. Clinic counselor Ida reconnects with their troubled and dying brother Desmond (Felix Solis, “Ozark”), and Serene is losing patience with her adult daughter, Connie (Shyrley Rodriguez, “Knives Out”), who’s working as an erotic model.
The screenplay from Rodriguez, Colón-Zayas, Rubin-Vega and Snyder has no interest in exaggerated melodrama or shocking twists. “Allswell” is the tale of three lives that already converged decades ago, already had their wild romances, already made mistakes. We aren’t watching them get together and split apart; we’re watching how they stay together during trying times, and we come to realize they’ve done it before and will do it again.
Watching Daisy invite a strange young woman (played by Mackenzie Lansing, “Mare of Easttown”) into her life with all the enthusiasm of a mom at Christmas — ignoring some obvious red flags in the process — tells you all you need to know about what family means to her. Watching Serene trying to connect with a daughter full of anger and rebellion and resentment, sometimes with good cause and sometimes with cruelty, is a nuanced depiction of complex adult parent-child relationships.
And then there’s Ida, who’s covering for a co-worker engaging in well-intentioned office theft and enjoying a remarkably mature and loving relationship with her boyfriend Ray (Michael Rispoli, “Cherry”). Finding her estranged brother and watching Desmond slowly die in a hospital isn’t easy for her, or for any of them, and gradually all their outside concerns drift away. All that matters, for a short while at least, is reuniting the family to say goodbye to one of its members.
Describing the plot of “Allswell” doesn’t accurately convey the film’s impressive, utterly natural experience. The actors hit no false notes, interacting with each other with an unmistakable aura of shared experience. Humor and pathos blend seamlessly, so that even life’s small moments are at least a little bit riveting.
The cinematography by Oren Soffer (“A Nightmare Wakes”) and editing by Ray Hubley (“Minyan”) operate under the philosophy that they should get out of the actors’ way. That’s a perfectly effective approach for the film’s visual pacing, but many scenes lack a cinematic personality beyond what the performers can give. Those performers are game, but the film’s aesthetic cleanliness eventually seems a little more lifeless than subtle, as though the light that hits these women is almost always slickly, implausibly neutral.
But what “Allswell” may lack in overt style it more than compensates for as a superior acting showcase, full of absolutely believable and wonderful characters. Dramas rarely feel this inviting without coming across as deeply suspicious, as though behind the positive façade there must surely be a festering mass of hypocrisy or wrongdoing.
Snyder’s film is full of love and meaning while engaging, directly, with the failings of the film’s characters. “Allswell” likes them. “Allswell” forgives them. Because “Allswell” understands them.
“Allswell” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.