The town in which Renata (Carmen Madonia) and her family vacation in Luis De Filippis’ assured debut, Something You Said Last Night, is sleepy — quiet and inert. The cottages, spaced out enough to give the idea of privacy, sit near a lake that glistens during the day. Boats can be rented and sailed out to the water, there’s a pool somewhere in the resort and a number of places for a person to retreat from the world.
Renata, a millennial writer grappling with a recent layoff, does a lot of hiding in De Filippis’ film. Some of it is out of necessity — she’s a trans woman navigating an often cruel world — and other times it’s for respite. Her mother, Mona (Ramona Milano), is a well-meaning Italian matriarch whose attempts to help her daughter can feel suffocating. Renata ducks behind doors and absconds to the lake to vape and contemplate. The camera catches her in these meditative moments: Her eyes searching the land beyond, as if the trees in the distance might hold answers; her chin resting on her knees; her body curled into itself, a protective stance against the world.
Something You Said Last Night
The Bottom Line An assured family drama with a too opaque protagonist.
Release date: Fri. Sept 22 (New York); Fri. Sept 29 (Los Angeles)
Cast: Carmen Madonia, Ramona Milano, Paige Evans, Joey Parro
Director-screenwriter: Luis De Filippis
1 hour 36 minutes
Considering how sensitively Something You Said Last Night observes its protagonist, it’s a shame her interiority is so opaque. For most of the languidly paced drama, Renata, who goes by Ren, remains a touch too out of reach. The distance, which initially activates genuine curiosity, eventually undermines the narrative De Filippis has so tenderly constructed.
The film opens with a frantic and intimate search. Ren sifts through her luggage looking for her vape, a tiny device that helps her feel grounded. When she finds it, she jets into the gas station restroom to smoke. Ren’s mother doesn’t like that she inhales the noxious fumes, but the young writer isn’t trying to fight her now. There will be other arguments later. Petty grievances will be aired in the late evenings, soundtracked by an orchestra of cicadas and crickets. More explosive confrontations will happen too, as the vacation hours stretch into days and the cottage starts to feel claustrophobic.
Ren and her family don’t bicker about her transition — that aspect of her life is accepted, received with warmth and occasionally clumsy care. Their fights are familiar to small families with grown children and aging parents.
Mona complains of her daughters — Ren and Siena (Paige Evans) — not spending enough time with her, a request she rarely makes of her absent son, Anthony. Sometimes she fights with her husband, Guido (Joey Parro), because he doesn’t listen as much as he should. The girls get into it, too: Ren and Siena quarrel in the way sisters often do. Their confrontations are vicious exchanges of harsh sentiments, followed by moments of loving intimacy.
The central dramas of Something You Said Last Night — Ren trying to tell her mom she got laid off, the sisters navigating summer days at the resort — separate it from the pack of recent films about trans lives by offering a protagonist not explicitly grappling with state violence or family rejection.
Ren’s story is about the secrets unearthed during reunions and the pressures of contemporary adulthood. It flirts with the traits of a coming-of-age drama and navigates the dynamics of Italian families. De Filippis assuredly weaves in culturally specific threads — from the music Ren’s family plays on the drive to the resort to the casual movement between Italian and English — that buoy the film.
Resort life necessitates adjustment in routine. Some of the strongest threads of De Filippis’ film are when we see Ren trying to negotiate her behavior in front of her family and strangers. DP Norm Li’s camera follows her gaze as she watches Siena behave recklessly and fellow vacationers act with a freedom not afforded to her. These moments, which subtly gesture at the complexity of Ren’s internal struggle without sensationalizing it, are occasionally powerful. But they can sometimes feel too muted and cast Ren as a too passive actor in her own life.
Newcomer Madonia gives us a Ren preoccupied by her thoughts. She communicates that through an impressive range of facial expressions, from the steely stares Ren throws Siena when the younger sister is at her cruelest to the eye rolls reserved for Mona’s self-deifying speeches.
But De Filippis’ screenplay is so spare that it’s hard to appreciate the dynamism of this performance. Ren’s communication is often curt and there aren’t enough scenes in which the eldest daughter reveals her own desires, her thoughts or her life outside of the family vacation. We know Ren is a writer, maybe a journalist, but it’s not clear what draws her to the craft. We wonder what kinds of relationships she’s formed outside of her family? Where does she live, in whom does she confide?
De Filippis’ film is more confident in observing broad family dynamics. Scenes with Mona inject the drama with a vital energy. Milano’s character takes up a lot of space by design, but the actress also works to complicate the mother figure.
In one especially strong scene, Mona reveals the limits of her own empathy for her trans daughter by framing her care as a finite source. She tells Siena that she can’t worry about her because her attention must go to supporting Ren. It’s a sentiment that ends up hurting both daughters and ironically tells us more about Ren than most of the film. She rejects her mother’s worry and it makes you wonder how, instead, she wants her family to support her?
Something You Said Last Night testifies to its director’s dexterity with constructing subtly meaningful moments, but without more insight into its protagonist, the film can feel unintentionally impenetrable at times. We watch Ren, moving through this vacation as she does through life, but do we ever really know her?