Watch the canon of classic American mafia movies and you’ll be constantly reminded that families, both kinds, stay together. The Vito Corleones and Tony Sopranos of the world are quick to justify the formation of their criminal organizations by saying that Italians had to look out for each other when they immigrated to this country with nothing. And they will defend their ongoing shady dealings by saying they do everything for their wives and children. Crime may be the lifeblood of their communities, but what really matters (in their view) is that Mafia families always look out for each other.
Of course, stories never end as happily as they begin. The sacred ties of family rarely survive the stresses posed by greed, law enforcement, and the huge ego this line of work attracts. Sometimes, it only takes a boy named Big Sam to make a disrespectful comment about his cousin’s new boat to start a massacre that brings a family to its knees.
The takeaway is often that if you invite evil into your life, it eventually becomes impossible to let it work. When a gangster survives long enough to have his idyllic home life ruined by his bad decisions, there’s always a moment of regret when he thinks back to what he could have been. But who’s to say that what could have been wasn’t Also terrible?
That’s the question Jennifer Esposito seeks to explore in her directorial debut “Fresh Kills.” The 1980s-set period piece follows the wife and two daughters of a Staten Island mob boss as they navigate the material comforts and unspoken expectations that come with living in the male-dominated world of organized crime. Esposito deftly steers the story away from the tired stereotypes we’ve seen before, like the “Mafia wife” seething in the house while her husband cheats or daughters living in fear of an abusive father. Instead, the film takes a nuanced look at the existential angst that can haunt women in this world when things are (relatively) good.
The Larusso family thought moving from Brooklyn to a palatial McMansion on Staten Island would be a fresh start. They would have more space, the kids could go to a new school without fear of being bullied, and Francine (Esposito) would finally have the distance she needs to turn a blind eye to what her husband Joe (Domenick Lombardozzi) does to fund their lives. But when Francine arrives and sees that Joe has left out a key detail from the field—they now live next door to his mob associate Nello (Stelio Savante)—she realizes that no one can run far enough to escape the ugly realities of this life.
That’s the lesson he tries to teach his daughters Rose (Emily Bader) and Connie (Odessa A’zion) as they grow up in the shadow of the mob. “Fresh Kills” spans most of their childhoods, starting in the summer of 1987 and continuing through 1998. The large canvas allows us to watch as the two girls form their own wildly divergent opinions about the family business.
Connie is infinitely loyal to her father and greatly appreciates the lifestyle he offers her. She is always ready to leap to her defense and even quicker to marry a young gangster and embrace her life as a mafia wife. Rose approaches things differently. She sees that there is life beyond Staten Island and allows herself to entertain dreams of going to cosmetology school and hosting a TV show about beauty. When her father showers her with gifts—like buying her a bakery to run without ever asking if she’d be interested—they feel like gold chains binding her to a life she’s not sure she wants.
Francine exists somewhere between the two, as if she entered life with Rose’s idealism and eventually resigned herself to Connie’s pragmatism. She is loyal to a fault, but often silently supports Rose’s larger ambitions despite her efforts to discourage her. Esposito gives an incredible performance as a protective mother who has decided to live life without questioning the choices she has made about her, even though part of her knows they may have been the wrong ones of hers.
“Fresh Kills” is at its best when it explores the complicated nuances of mob life through small, everyday moments between Francine and her daughters. But the major plot points that make up the skeleton of the story often veer towards melodrama that isn’t quite as sharply executed. At certain points the film feels unsure of what it wants to be, injecting its simple production design and 80s cinematography with more expressionistic “indie film moments” that stray away from the larger story. (There’s the clever shot of someone whooping with glee on a deserted street at night.)
But the occasional stylistic inconsistency never derails the film because the emotional core of Francine, Connie and Rose is so strong. Esposito portrays the three women with the kind of depth that’s normally reserved for male mob bosses, and proves time and time again that their decisions are as complicated as trying to decide who to hit. The three actresses give deeply human performances that should remind everyone that the invisible women these films love to cast aside are more than capable of anchoring their own stories.
“Fresh Kills” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.