Robert Evans claims to have told Francis Ford Coppola, after an initial private screening of The Godfather, “You shot a saga, but you turned in a trailer.” Unfortunately, Jennifer Esposito’s directorial debut Fresh Kills suffers the same fate, cramming a series’ worth of material into a sweeping feature film. In Fresh Kills, Staten Island, a beautiful suburb that stands just across the water from the city and not far from the infamous landfill, the Larusso family is about living the good life and moving to safety. Patriarch Joe (Domenick Lombardozzi) and wife Francine (Esposito) attempt to shield their daughters Rose and Connie from the family business. There are always little tells, and on moving day the girls discover a box of white powder in the moving van––leading Joe to discipline a foot soldier who later turns up dead.
Like Meadow Soprano before her, Connie (played in later passages by Odessa A’zion) starts figuring out what exactly the family business is while Rose (Emily Bader) starts to notice preferential treatment in her Catholic school as a result of the family’s standing in the community. There are other clues throughout, and the film fast-forwards through their childhood when the violence that Joe and Francine have worked to protect their daughters from comes creeping closer. A sequence set circa 1993 proves Connie is very much her father’s daughter when she’s drawn into a violent conflict in the alleyway of a movie theater.
While not reaching The Sopranos‘ level of tragedy and nuance, Fresh Kills feels very much of its universe, bursting with authenticity even if its rapid pace, compressing many of the events, gives a disjointed feel until the final act. This is the kind of family where talking about feelings is discouraged, yet this film plays a bit cold compared to the vulnerability expressed in David Chase’s series. The third act, set largely in 1997, starts paying off as walls continue to close in. Connie is now a single mother while Rose is engaged to Frankie (Franco Maicas), a neighborhood boy whose father was killed years before. He now runs errands for Joe in the basement of a bakery he has “gifted” to his daughters.
Though engaged to Frankie, Rose starts having doubts when he yearns to follow in the footsteps of the “family” with no ambition to leave Staten Island. Inspired by the TV coverage of the Fresh Kills landfill, the proximity to the city, and a desire for something else, Connie tells her mother she wishes to keep her options open, including auditioning to be Sally Jessy Raphael’s co-host when an open call is announced.
Fresh Kills gets much of the atmosphere and tone right, and at its best is an evocative character study of mob wives and daughters; A’zion lends a particularly fascinating performance as a tough-willed woman ready to stand her ground and look out for “her people.” Joe’s violence has infected her without the educated awareness of Meadow Soprano as a mechanism. For his part, Joe aims to keep his family close as a sole provider, making sure those closest to him are taken care of with cars, houses, and “businesses.” The film would have been best had Esposito’s script remained laser-focused––perhaps in one time period, like the similar A Chiara––rather than compressing the events of an epic into an uneven, yet at times compelling feature.
Fresh Kills premiered at Tribeca Festival.