Taron Lexton’s sentimental road movie recounts a formative real(ish)-life vacation for screenwriter (and voice of Bart Simpson) Nancy Cartwright.
An idealized coming-of-age memoir in which a young woman’s disability-grade innocence doesn’t keep her from making the most of a solo sojourn across Italy, Taron Lexton’s In Search of Fellini speaks to and for women raised on cinematic fairy tales. Inspired by the experiences of Simpsons star Nancy Cartwright, who before creating the voice of Bart went off hunting the auteur of La Dolce Vita, it marks the thesp’s first screenplay (cowritten by another newbie, Peter Kjenaas). But however much its sentimentalized innocence stretches credulity, the overall production remains polished, and young dreamers who come across it in limited release may well embrace it.
Ksenia Solo plays Lucy, a blonde waif raised by a mother (Maria Bello’s Claire) who protected her from nearly every harsh reality life has to offer. Claire fails to protect Lucy from arthouse cinema, though: Upon stumbling into a screening of La Strada, Lucy sees a kindred spirit in sacrificial lamb Giulietta Masina. She falls hard for Fellini, gathering a stack of VHS tapes (the year is 1993) and absorbing the weird circus of his worldview.
The newly devoted fan picks up a phone, asks for directory assistance in Rome, and is connected to Fellini’s office. Is it impossible to believe she is offered a personal audience with il maestro at 3pm the following day? Perhaps. But we’ve already made it through a scene in which Lucy submitted a job application on which she drew a unicorn where she was supposed to write her name and address, so let’s roll with it.
Claire tells Lucy she can’t accompany her to Italy. Lucy doesn’t know what Aunt Carrie (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has sworn not to reveal: Claire is dying of cancer, and hopes this solo voyage will get her daughter used to the idea of surviving outside the nest.
The pretty American fares much better than a world traveler who does this many things wrong has any right to expect. She winds up in the wrong city not once but twice, losing all her luggage, but falls in with glamorous companions and is wowed by lushly-photographed sights. She meets an approachably handsome artist in Verona and is tastefully deflowered; she is sold rum bonbons by a shopkeeper who suggestively boasts, “it is said that I have the sweetest balls in Verona.”
The only really bad thing that happens to Lucy in Italy, in fact, occurs during a cross-cut montage that seems to inadvertently hint it is just a figment of her ailing mother’s imagination. Where the final minutes of the movie suffer from clumsy storytelling, most of what precedes them sits well within the romantic finding-oneself comfort zone, and Solo, while not able to imbue her character with Amelie-like spark, helps keep things from getting treacly.
By the end, the movie’s prefatory “based on a (mostly) true story” claim has come to sound like more of a stretch than usual, but such is memory. The transformational vacations that didn’t kill us or leave us with herpes can feel more charmed than they were after a couple of decades have passed. Especially if they involved plentiful pasta and a first encounter with 8 1/2.
Production company: Spotted Cow Entertainment
Distributor: AMBI Media Group
Cast: Ksenia Solo, Maria Bello, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Director: Taron Lexton
Screenwriters: Nancy Cartwright, Peter Kjenaas
Producers: Nancy Cartwright, Peter Kjenaas, Monica Gil, Michael Doven, Taron Lexton, Nathan Lorch, Milena Ferreira
Executive producers: Nancy Cartwright, Kevin J. Burke, Maria Bello, Monika Bacardi, Andrewa Iervolino
Director of photography: Kevin Garrison
Production designer: Todd Jeffery
Costume designers: Sienna Kay, Catherine Buyse Dian
Editors: Alexa Vier, K. Spencer Jones
Composer: David Camptbell
Casting directors: Lisa London, Catherine Stroud
R, 103 minutes