Nancy Savoca’s Union Square begins in caricature and ends in sentimentality, only briefly hitting the sweet spot in between. Starring Mira Sorvino as frazzled Bronx girl Lucy, the film begins by introducing us to this character, in the midst of a breakdown as she descends on the titular Big Apple locale, desperately trying to contact a reluctant lover via cellphone. As skillfully embodied by Sorvino, though, Lucy seems to embody all the negative stereotypes of outer-borough provincialism: She’s loud, has no regard for social decorum, speaks with what sounds to these ears as a Long Island accent, and dresses rather, um, loosely.
This train wreck of a woman, offered up, at least initially, for the viewer’s condescending amusement, becomes all the more embarrassing when she unexpectedly shows up at the door of her estranged sister’s Union Square apartment. While the two shared a similar upbringing, Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) escaped into the rarefied life of upper-crust Manhattan living and is now so desperate to leave every trace of her past behind that she’s gone so far as to tell her live-in fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), that she’s from Maine.
But the return-of-the-repressed that is Lucy soon begins shaking things up for Blanchard’s clean-living yuppie, breaking out cigarettes, demanding booze, inviting her friends over. It’s all quite horrible, both for Jenny and for the audience, as we’re asked to share the sister’s horrified condescension. Soon, though, Savoca and co-screenwriter Mary Tobler begin flipping the script on the setup, casting Lucy in a more sympathetic and less one-dimensional light and using her as a foil to explore the half-lies and evasions that prop up her sibling’s picture-perfect lifestyle.
As the façade starts to break down, the filmmakers skillfully shift our sympathies around between sisters, forcing Blanchard’s character to acknowledge what was lost in the transformation from Jenny from the block to princess of Union Square. Similarly, Lucy moves from object of condescension to object of pathos as we see the psychic costs of her not being able to escape the provincial thinking of her Bronx neighborhood. And while the film, which largely takes place in Jenny and Bill’s apartment, has the potential for stage-bound inertia, Savoca employs darting handheld camerawork and moves her characters out onto the streets frequently enough to keep things lively.
Still, no sooner are raw emotions revealed then they’re more or less covered up—or at least given a perfunctory, if not definitive, resolution. Personal evasions are forgiven and a surprise video that the group watches on Facebook puts the importance of family in perspective, while gently milking a sentimentality that overrides rather than enhances the complexities of character that the film had just developed. Only in the film’s clear-sighted middle does it strike the right balance—caricature giving way to prickly vulnerability—before softening up for its inevitable conclusion.