It Is What It Is (2014) – By Matthew Saliba

It’s been a long time since I last wrote a review for Rogue Cinema. I went from a filmmaker-turned-film critic-turned-filmmaker and while in the midst of shooting and now promoting my latest film “Eroticide,” I’ve unfortunately haven’t had the kind of time needed to write thoughtful, constructive critiques of the films being sent my way to review and as such have long since “retired” from the site.

However, it was recently brought to my attention that director Michael Stevantoni whose previous film, “The Brother” I reviewed way back when, personally requested that I take a look at his latest work, “It Is What It Is.” As I recall, my review of “The Brother” wasn’t necessarily the most positive one, though I did make a point to be very constructive in my criticism, particularly given the fact that I’m a filmmaker and I personally despise when critics write scathing reviews (or for that matter, glowing ones) without breaking down point by point, why they feel the way they do.

So maybe it was the flattering feeling I felt at having been personally asked to “come out of retirement” or maybe it was my gut reaction of, “Boy, this guy has balls to come back for more,” but either way, I’m back with a special guest review of Michael Stevantoni’s “It Is What It Is.”

The film centers on Mitch (played by James Kay), a blues musician who returns home to see his father who’s dying of cancer. Mitch clearly cares enough about his family to have made the trek back to see them, though we do get the impression that he is a little on the self-absorbed side. Encouraged by his sister to send their father for his much-needed chemo, Mitch does so and as a result, encounters Gabby (played by Mary Jo Wood) in the waiting room. The two hit it off, but mostly due to Gabby’s unfortunate misdiagnosis of Mitch being the cancer patient (as opposed to his father). Whether out of pity or passion, or perhaps both, Gabby invites Mitch to her apartment for an intimate evening, he won’t soon forget.

I’ve always felt that the best way to experience a filmmaker’s body of work is to watch it in chronological order. That way you can truly see a director’s progression (or regression) over the years and especially when he/she makes that breakout film that sends a message to the world that an auteur has arrived on the scene with a unique way of seeing film and using it to convey the emotions and tell the kind of stories that will make a lasting impression upon the audiences lucky enough to bear witness to them. In many cases, I would say, “It Is What It Is” is one such example.

Stevantoni has grown in leaps and bounds both as a visual filmmaker and an emotional storyteller.

Like “The Brother,” “It Is What It Is” features some really beautiful cinematography once again showing off his incredible eye for detail, composition and color. In an age where hand-held camerawork is king, it’s really refreshing to find a filmmaker who hasn’t abandoned the sturdiness of a tripod and the gorgeous static framing that comes from using one.

From a storytelling standpoint, “It Is What It Is” is a very ambitious film, perhaps a little too ambitious given its 11-minute runtime. Stevantoni manages to cram in themes of family, fatalism, cancer and a really unique spin on the romantic film (picking up a guy in a cancer ward is definitely an anomaly in a tried, tested and true genre). The whole subplot of Mitch and Gabby’s relationship could in many ways be a feature-length film in its own right. As it stands now, it’s a beautiful sequence but certainly one that leaves us longing for more.

Having said that, Stevantoni manages to balance a very touching story (Mitch’s relationship with his father) with an oddly funny one (the misunderstanding that leads to Mitch and Gabby’s date) to create an overall wonderful film that makes me look forward to seeing what the young auteur has coming up next.