All About Nina is writer-director Eva Vives’s feature film debut starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as witty, yet acerbic, standup comedian Nina Geld.
Nina’s got a career on the rise, a chip on her shoulder, and a serial hook-up habit that barely patches over the mess that is her love life. She’s unafraid to let it all hang out on stage but avoids facing her demons, or engaging on a personal level, in real life. Vives’s screenplay uses subtle situational comedy and moments of tense, honesty and emotional confusion to tell the story of a woman trying to balance being creatively authentic while personally a hot mess.
The opening sequence introduces Nina in her element, on stage. It does an excellent job of setting a tone that matches the comedic pacing and Winstead’s kinetic energy, but the vibe quickly downshifts and takes the story direction with it.
You quickly realize Nina isn’t even close to being as together as her onstage persona appears when she takes her latest one-night-stand-to-be home only to find her ex in her living room. Instead of kicking him out, Nina asks him to go down on her and the scene fades only to restart on an uncomfortable to watch morning between the two.
On the one hand the dissonance between the images certainly makes you wonder at what’s causing the difference; but on the other hand, it makes Nina into a stereotypical “damaged” girl with no deviations.
So, I wasn’t a fan of Vives’s decision to paint Nina as self-annihilating right out the gate. There just isn’t enough context for it to make her come across as anything but weak-willed rather than conflicted. You’re not supposed to like Nina at times; but, you are supposed to respect her.
Undercutting her character development so soon indicates a direction, that practically guarantees the plot won’t dig very far below the surface to tell her story before it’s all said and done. Which is a shame because Nina is a fascinating personality.
Nina suffers from stage fright, the kind that has her puking as soon as her set is over, and enough intimacy issues and relationship trauma to keep her therapist busy for several lifetimes. When it comes to interacting with people, Nina hits first and hardest to avoid being vulnerable. She drinks way too much, uses having random sex like a sleep aid, has a strained relationship with her mother, and is absolutely not equipped to deal with any of her baggage. There’s a great story buried in all of that, but we only get about a quarter of it in the final product.
Instead what follows centers on a woman stuck in a vicious cycle of self-loathing until she meets a man and starts a relationship, unlike any she’s ever had before, which breaks that cycle and forces her to confront some of her issues. Naturally, that emotional break happens when she’s onstage at a club comedy. The moment is powerfully delivered by Winstead; but nothing about her journey is ever unexpected. There are a few particularly compelling moments along the way; but for the most part, this lead, as written, falls into stereotypically basic white girl drama and habits.
I never know what to think about a film that gives me a “broken” female lead character. It feeds into the implication that a woman doesn’t make positive changes or do something that’s good for herself professionally unless she’s motivated to act by pain and trauma. Stories based on this premise send the message that the only way to deal is to run far, far away from your dysfunction (and problems).
All About Nina does a stellar job of highlighting the lie in that logic but fails to have Nina do more than talk out her angst in the moment; like her lack of coping skills didn’t follow her to a new zip code.
On screen, she’s almost so damaged it overshadows everything going on in the plot. While the story dives in and focuses on Nina in all her messed-up glory, it’s more about who she is in the moment which is a disservice to the character. Nina doesn’t wallow much (she also doesn’t really ever process her pain) and neither does this movie. There are moments where the plot could’ve benefited from lingering.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays this commitment-phobic comedian with a brash recklessness that will keep you watching long after you realize Nina is just another damaged girl whose life is held together by scotch tape. Winstead makes pat dialogue hit hard and the emotional ups and downs of this woman believable. Her onscreen chemistry with the too-mellow-to-be-believed Rafe (Common) creates more than a little hilarity, especially when juxtaposed against her L.A. roommates’ (Clea Duvall and Kate del Castillo) healthy, if new agey as hell, relationship. But most of the plot progression felt uninspired given how obvious it is that Vives understands this woman.
Sometimes, using a trope to anchor a character leads to a story coming from an emotional place that paves the way for a story you might miss out on otherwise. Unfortunately, just as the story reaches that point, Vives flinches and pivots towards the expected.
All About Nina is a dramedy one that’s a touch heavy-handed on the drama and a little light on real introspection. It’s an enjoyable film with interesting highs and lows enough to keep me invested; but in the end, the plot’s shortcomings undermine Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s powerful performance.
All About Nina is now playing in select theaters.