As America engages in heated discussions about sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over incidents that allegedly occurred decades ago — and survivors of sexual abuse tell their stories on Twitter under the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag — here comes the debut film from director Eva Vives that speaks to the heart of that conversation.
All About Nina stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an up and coming stand-up comedian who is also a survivor of abuse. And though there’s nothing new about the emotional scars Winstead’s Nina lives with, its particular relevance to the present American zeitgeist is palpable.
Vives herself identifies as a survivor of sexual abuse and says she’s based Nina’s backstory on her own experiences. It’s perhaps that close familiarly with the titular lead character’s trauma that helped her to guide Winstead towards delivering one of the strongest performances of the actress’ career as she’s tasked with jumping from confident and abrasive standup comic in one moment to raw, emotionally unstable mess the next.A very different performance is asked of Common, who plays Rafe, the first guy in a long time to break through some of Nina’s heavily fortified defenses and whom she begins to seriously consider as more than just a casual fling. Though we never plumb the same kind of dark, emotional depths with Rafe as we do Nina, Common rises above the mere plot device often assigned love interest characters. He’s sexy, charming, sophisticated, and gentle in a way that convincingly disarms Nina.
The choice to set the film within the world of stand-up comedy brings out another side to Nina’s story. All About Nina is the second film in recent memory to feature the recruitment process for a thinly veiled stand-in for Saturday Night Live as a major story driver. In Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy Don’t Think Twice, the members of an improv team compete for one open slot on the popular Weekend Live. Here, Nina must impress producer Larry Michaels (not to be confused with real-life SNL producer Lorne Michaels). There’s even a scene where she and fellow competing comedians learn together who won that prestigious job that easily could have been straight out of Don’t Think Twice. And with films like Kumail Nanjiani’s Oscar-nominated The Big Sick as well as Pete Holmes’ hit HBO series Crashing and Amazon’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the inside world of the struggling comedian is having its own cultural moment right now. But, while some of those other aforementioned projects feel perhaps more authentic in terms of their depictions of the comedy world, All About Nina derives its strength most from its emotional honesty when it comes to coping with abuse.
Another aspect of the film that doesn’t quite work is there are not just one but two different moments where each player in the movie’s central couple face the nightmare scenario of a confrontational ex showing up at the worst moment when they’re with their current love interest and causing a scene. And while only one is pure happenstance, it feels like lazy scripting to present too similar unlikely events when the film doesn’t appear to be deliberately going for any symbolic significance for the mirroring scenes beyond a desire to fulfill a story note calling for more conflict.Also, beyond Nina and Rafe, the supporting cast isn’t given much material to work with. Nina’s agent is very pregnant, but only seemingly because actress Camryn Manheim was pregnant when shooting the film. No greater depth is given to the character. And, while staying in L.A., Nina temporarily rooms with a typical Los Angeles New Age stereotype who quickly goes from a character Nina rolls her eyes at to her close confidant in a manner that makes me wonder if scenes building their relationship got cut for time.
All About Nina is a deft portrayal of a woman who’s gone many years quietly suffering from the psychological fallout of sexual abuse alone because of the fear of how she’ll be perceived and treated after telling her truth. However, it’s not the somber, depressing film one would expect from that description. Nina effectively balances its darker material with its romance plot and light comedic moments. But the film best serves as a showcase for Winstead’s dramatic range, particularly evident in Nina’s final stand-up performance.