Chris Messina's "Alex of Venice" is as much a love letter to the Los Angeles neighborhood as it is a well-observed drama.
Capturing a family in transition, the actor's modestly scaled behind-the-camera debut features subtle work by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the title role and an exceptionally moving performance by Don Johnson. If the story sometimes feels more schematic than involving, Messina propels the gentle action with a sure grasp of unforced emotional detail.
In a welcome departure from showier characters, Winstead ("Smashed") plays an environmental lawyer whose life is jolted into new territory after her husband (Messina) splits, tired of the thankless job of handling domestic duties. Alex becomes a frazzled juggler: On top of an all-consuming career she must care for her 10-year-old son (sensitively played by Skylar Gaertner) and her father (Johnson), a former TV star who might be slipping into dementia. Offering help and a spark of adventure is Alex's flighty sister (Katie Nehra, one of three credited screenwriters).
Given that Alex's most pressing business is a lawsuit to save local wetlands from a proposed resort project, there's an all-too obvious parallel in her father's audition for a production of "The Cherry Orchard," with its symbolically endangered trees. But when he's asked to read for a smaller role — "The really old one?" he asks — deeper, more poignant parallels emerge.
While Derek Luke provides complicating heat as the developer on the opposite side of the big case, the eco theme is the movie's least-convincing aspect. Concerned more with his characters' adjustments and recalibrations, Messina cradles them in the setting's soft golden light and a bygone sense of Venice's boho-tinged magic.
"Alex of Venice."
MPAA rating: R for language (including sexual references), drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles.