Vanessa Kirby Is Lost Between Worlds in Dreamy ‘Italian Studies’

A young woman who temporarily loses her memory in New York City may seem like a set up for disaster, but Adam Leon’s drama “Italian Studies,” which centers on a thirtysomething British writer, Alina Reynolds (Vanessa Kirby), who is inexplicably stricken with amnesia while running errands, is a journey filled with mostly warmth and self-discovery. After a serendipitous meeting, Alina goes on an adventure with local teen Simon (gifted newcomer Simon Brickner), and together, they explore this “warm world.”

“Italian Studies” actually begins in London, where Alina, now back to normal, or whatever normal is for her, is at a recording studio while her husband works with some young musicians. During a break, Annika (Annika Wahlsten) asks Alina if she remembers meeting her in NYC with Simon, but Alina doesn’t even remember Simon. Flashback to months early, and Alina leaves her dog tied outside on a busy street while she steps inside of a hardware store. She quickly forgets why she went in there, and wanders out into the street in a scene that is rather upsetting for dog lovers. As night falls and she finds herself transfixed by the cityscape, she eventually stops into a hot dog shop where she encounters Simon, who tries to sell her some extra hot dogs he had to buy in order to meet the crest card minimum. She declines the hot dogs, but she does take up his offer to smoke weed. 

Alina and Simon discuss life and a variety of topics, the most poignant being the differences between what Simon describes as the “warm world” and “cold world.” The viewer sees what he means when Alina abruptly departs and finds herself in the cold world. She starts to gain her footing the next day after a young fan recognizes her as Alina Reynolds, an author of a collection of short stories titled “Italian Studies.” At the library, Alina reads the book for herself, imagining herself as the main character (Maya Hawke stands in as Alina’s alternate self) in a dreamy sequence.

That night, Alina reunites with Simon at the library, and she tells him that she’d like to hang out with him and his friends in order to find inspiration for a book she’s writing about teenagers. A fun night of bonding ensues, full of fun, music, and some awkward interactions. In an alternate timeline, “normal” Alina interviews Simon and his friends documentary style, and this leads to some very striking and honest moments during which they open up about their hopes, fears and views on love and relationships.

Leon and Brickner recently sat down together in New York and chatted with Entertainment Voice via Zoom. Leon revealed that the idea for “Italian Studies” came about after Kirby, whom he has known for a few years, called him up wanting to work on something together. “We had been talking about ideas that sort of related to some of the themes in the movie, like how we process being present in a moment and how our environment affects that in sort of a bullshitty way,” he recalled. “She said she had time in her schedule and wanted to be thrown out in the New York City streets, which I had done before in previous work, and we developed it from there.”

At the time, Leon was directing a live variety show in NYC, “The All City Hour Variety Hour,” which featured mostly teens, including Brickner. Although the goofy tone of the show was very different from what “Italian Studies” came to be, Leon was inspired to include the young performers in the project. He explained, “This idea of someone searching for their identity and getting immersed with kids at the age where they’re trying on different identities for themselves felt like it made sense.”

Leon and Brickner met through Fred Hechinger, an actor and producer on “Italian Studies,” who first worked with Brickner on a film when they were both in high school. Leon was blown away by Brickner’s musical talent and provocative performance style, but it wasn’t always his intention to make him the co-star of the movie. “As we worked more and more together in rehearsals, he became the anchor of the teenagers.”

Alina and Simon have this great rapport and seemingly effortless chemistry, so it comes as no surprise that much of their scenes were improvised. Recalled Brickner, “Adam basically put us in front of the camera and was just like, ‘Go.’ We just did scene after scene of us coming up with different things to talk about.” 

Simon praises Alina for taking a chance by going off with him, ignoring social norms. In turn, she gets him to let some of his walls down. Art imitated life, because Leon did the same for Brickner behind the scenes. The actor claimed that working with Leon changed him. “Whenever I would get aggravated, you’d be like, ‘Simon, stop. You’re not a tough guy.’ And the whole time I’d be on set I’d be trying to act super tough––”

“I definitely called you on your bullshit,” interjected Leon.

“You definitely did,” agreed Brickner “I appreciated it.”

How much of the character of Simon is actually Brickner is a heated topic of debate between the actor and Leon. Said Brickner, “I think he’s exactly me at that difficult point in time. If you watch this movie, you can kind of be like, ‘Wow, that kid seems really troubled.’ And, yeah, at the time, I was really troubled. After the movie, I was homeless for a while. I think it was pretty accurate.”

While Leon agrees that there is much of Brickner in the cinematic Simon, he believes the character was also shaped by himself, Kirby, and their team. “I think there is an honesty in your life that is reflected in the character, but I also think that it is a character, and there are lines that you’re saying and stories that you’re telling,” he said to Brickner.

Music plays an important role in driving the plot of “Italian Studies,” upbeat when the mood calls for it, and haunting when necessary. Leon revealed that he and Kirby agreed that music would help tell the story from Alina’s point-of-view. “There is a challenge to that, in terms of the audience. I think there was something for us early on where we were like, ‘If we’re going to do this in this, we should make the movie not that long, and we should make this movie packed with cinema, and with warmth and fun.’” 

The impressive soundtrack includes a score from “Moonlight” composer Nicholas Britell and a cameo from pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma, but the most striking musical moment is a solo performance from Brickner, who revealed that the song he sings is a very personal one written by himself. “In the summer of 2017, I went to a camp for junior statesmen, for people who want to work in the government. I met this girl there and we fell in love, and I came back from camp and wrote a song about this girl. I just started performing it everywhere, and I performed it at the ‘All-City Hour.’ Adam was just like, ‘Yo, I want you to sing that song in the movie.’” Both Brickner and Leon admitted that the inclusion of the musical number was a last-minute surprise for Brickner, but he certainly rose to the occasion. 

Last by not least, Kirby absolutely shines as Aline. Leon discussed the challenge the actress, who is best known for portraying young Princess Margaret on “The Crown,” had in playing a character who doesn’t know who she is for most of the movie. “Vanessa knows everything about Princess Margaret. She has every single Princess Margaret book, and has talked to people who knew Princess Margaret. For this, it required this leap of faith, and it was a challenge for her to embody a character who doesn’t know herself… On set, she brings everything. She’s captivating to look at. She’s a natural talent. She’s very, very dedicated to craft, and she’s a very, very giving actress. 

With a cast of actors who were mostly new to the craft, it was vital to have a performer of Kirby’s caliber to lead them. Leon praised her for showing them her fearless side. “I think it was helpful for [the young co-stars] to see that she was willing to go for it. …It’s okay to screw up. We just won’t put it in the movie.”

Italian Studies” releases Jan. 14 on VOD and in select theaters.