WHEN TELLING A STORY about overcoming troubled childhoods and reluctant family reunions, it's probably tempting to go the sentimental, after-school-special route. And while the Italian film The First Beautiful Thing might come close (yeah, there are some tearful embraces), writer/director Paolo Virzì grounds his drama with dry, awkward humor and a life-goes-on practicality, serving both as a coping mechanism for antihero Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea) and a means of keeping Virzì's film from getting too soapy.
The plot starts out eerily reminiscent of Garden State: The underachieving, self-medicating Bruno is forced to return home to his estranged family. But Beautiful goes beyond Braff territory when Bruno discovers that his unsinkable mother is lively as ever, even as a terminal patient. His reluctant interactions with her during her final weeks dredge up memories of her questionable parenting style, shown in gritty-glam flashbacks to the '70s and '80s.
As a bright counterpoint to sourpuss Bruno, Micaela Ramazzotti is magnetic as the young version of his mother Anna, smiling through a string of abusive men with glorious Italian mustaches. Blessed in beauty and charm but lacking any marketable skills, Anna makes like Blanche DuBois, relying on the kindness of strangers to keep a roof over young Bruno and his little sister, Valeria. The family dynamic is further convoluted when Anna's disapproving sister and the kids' father try to take them away from her.
Even on her deathbed, Anna still has some tricks up her sleeve, but nothing surprises Bruno anymore: He makes peace with what he'd spent years running from, allowing himself to finally move on—and reminding us that all you can do is play the hand you're dealt.