Imagine New York City in the early ’90s. It’s a big place to lose yourself or lose others. Meeting up is harder when you have to play phone tag through landlines. Perhaps you’re more likely to stay in familiar places and avoid those you can’t look up on a map on your phone. Not many people have a cellphone at this time, and not one shows up in the Bronx of Peter Andrew Lee’s feature debut Angelfish, a sensitive romantic drama about all this city has to offer and the hardships that can come with it.
The movie follows Brendan (Jimi Stanton), a stoic high school dropout who works at a deli to support his troubled brother, Conor (Stanley Simons), and his troublemaking mother, Mary (Erin Davie). While Mary brings home random boyfriends, stays out late at bars and shirks all parenting responsibilities, Brendan has to cope with his brother’s bad habit of hanging out with the wrong kids in the neighborhood, the ones who may land Conor in prison or in jail. One day at work, he notices Eva (Princess Nokia, in her on-screen debut) as she’s harassed by another guy in the store. Brandan sticks up for her but she doesn’t seem too interested in him in return. After a chance encounter at the movies with her friends, he tries to get her attention again, and this time it sticks. Eva has her own drama back home. She’s dealing with the guilt of her Puerto Rican mom, Altagracia (Rosie Berrido), who plans for her daughter to go to college and become an accountant even though Eva wants to pursue acting. Her mom also relies on her to help look after Eva’s disabled brother and much younger sister. Neither Eva nor Brendan have it easy, but among all the demands on their emotions, can they still find time and space for each other?
What follows is a low-key personal drama of the two stories. They run parallel to each other like train tracks, and there’s a genuine sense of suspense as to whether or not things will work out between them. Lee, who cowrote the story with Patrick Lee, Luna Del Rosario and Ella Mische, blends the two stories together with the occasional interlude shot of the north side of the City, its parks, bridges, bodega-lined streets, weathered old brick buildings and the elevated train stations.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the film is how it seamlessly incorporates both Spanish- and English-language dialogue, switching between the two without subtitles or abrupt interruption. It flows with ease between Eva’s family, only occasionally do they repeat themselves in English, but for the most part, you either catch the rapid-fire conversation between them or you’ll figure it out later.
Although Angelfish mostly follows Brendan’s story, Princess Nokia feels like the star.
With the help of cinematographer Jamal Solomon, Lee keeps many of his shots of the actors close, enhancing the feeling of cramped apartments and the pressure on the characters. It’s as if their problems are bigger than the landscape around them, only rarely on romantic trips or long talks at the park does it feel like they have space to breathe and take their surroundings in.
Although Angelfish mostly follows Brendan’s story, Princess Nokia feels like the star. The way Stanton plays Brendan is almost too stoic and too duty-bound to reveal what he’s really going through. He’s tremendously supportive of Eva’s creative ambitions, something she doesn’t find at home, and it’s easy to see how Eva could fall for such a kind stranger. As Eva, Princess Nokia (aka Destiny Frasqueri) plays her character with a lot of range, from vulnerable and open, to flirty and excited for the possibility of new love and acting opportunities, but also remorse and defeat for trying to go against her mother’s wishes for her. The sense of guilt is palpable and when she tries to tell Brendan she doesn’t think she can make things work, she can barely get the words out. It’s such a contrast from the first time Eva and Brendan hit it off — when her eyes full of life and energy. In the movie’s more sadder moments, her gaze is downcast, the light from her face almost gone entirely.
The period details feel secondary to the timeless story of two kids from different sides of the neighborhood falling in love, like West Side Story minus the singing and dancing. Both Brendan and Eva face some kind of pressure from their families not to be together, which only heightens the tension between them. Mary thinks Eva is only after her son’s meager earnings and talks about her in a denigrating manner. Altagracia has a Puerto Rican suitor in mind for Eva, even though she’s not interested in a guy who may or may not be talking to other girls behind her back. Fortunately, she finds support from a sympathetic Tía Patricia (Alejandra Ramos Riera), who encourages her to make the right decision for herself and not because her mother tells her to do something. Berrido and Davie bring empathy to their roles as difficult mothers. Opposite Stanton and Princess Nokia, they are the strongest presences in the movie, making the tension in their respective households more thrilling to watch. While Angelfish gets a few minor flaws from inexperienced actors, the raw performances by its main cast powers past its shortcomings. Its tender portrait of young love surviving the City remains fairly untarnished.