|A scene from “Mighty Fine.”|
New York’s Seventh Avenue was once the center of the schmatta industry, a locale where one would often see racks of clothes being wheeled down the street from factory to showroom. Many buyers still flock to New York City to buy their merchandise, but long ago, in large part, the manufacturing side of the industry moved from the city to the south, and then to the Far East.
Debbie Goodstein’s film, “Mighty Fine,” is about one Jewish family’s exodus from New York to New Orleans. It tells of a father who hopes to keep his once flourishing business alive with the help of lower wages and less expensive factory space. It is a look back at a time when many factory owners, a large segment of them Jewish, hoped to maintain their businesses and American jobs on this side of the Atlantic.
It is also Goodstein’s opportunity to look back at her own childhood and the indelible mark that this time must have left on her and her sister.
Goodstein’s semi-autobiographical narrative is a study of a dysfunctional 1970s-era family — dysfunctional due to the father’s mood swings, which were so great that his daughters often feared for their own safety. Joe Fine’s business successes allowed him to shower opulence on his family while the going was good, but watch out when things were not so good. This is the story of a Jewish soldier, one of the American liberators during World War II, who had fallen in love with and married a Jewish woman who spent the war years in Europe hiding from her would-be murderers. The marriage of the liberator and the liberated was indeed complex, leaving this woman forever feeling in debt to the man who saved her and brought her to America.
Stella spends her life serving her man, seemingly unable to question any of his actions, even when he teeters on the edge of madness. Just who is she? What has she become? What impact does her character have on her children? These questions are at the center of this narrative.
Goodstein studied the impact of being a child of a survivor in her 1988 documentary film, “Voices from the Attic,” where she and family members went back to Poland to tackle the deep family secret that had become a taboo subject. There, together with family, she explored the ordeal her mother and 16 family members experienced when hiding in the attic of a peasant’s home for two years. Like so many children of survivors, she was scarred and she used cinema to heal, trying to comprehend how that experience might have had impact on her and her family.
In 1991, together with the writer Nessa Rappoport, again tackling family dynamics, she wrote the teleplay for “Saying Kaddish,” about how a husband and his two daughters tackle loss when the 59-year-old matriarch dies of cancer. Now, over two decades later, inspired by memories of her childhood: her father’s abusive character and her mother’s inability to provide sufficient support for her children, she again delves into a family’s pathology.
Chaz Palminteri (“A Bronx Tale,” “Bullets over Broadway”) plays Joe Fine, who is loving and caring at one moment and at the next is filled with rage. Fine is a man who is in desperate need of therapy, but was living at a time when most men did not believe in it. Palminteri conveys a Sopranos-style persona, the father who loves, demands respect, and will not be challenged. Andie MacDowell (“Groundhog Day,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) is Joe’s wife Stella. She gives a good portrayal of the devoted wife and mother who is deeply impacted by her war experience. Handling a Polish accent is no easy task for most people, and especially if you are from South Carolina (which MacDowell is), and the actress gives it her best, but there are moments when it seems bothersome. A fine actor, she ably conveys the sense of vulnerability essential for the role.
Rainey Qualley is 16-year-old Maddie, the combative high school senior who is forced to relocate to a new school at the worst possible time in the life of an adolescent. MacDowell’s real-life daughter with her first husband, Qualley, gives a fine performance in this movie, her film debut. Jodelle Ferland is younger sister Natalie; she serves both as witness and storyteller. Goodstein’s story unfolds through Natalie’s eyes and narration.
“Mighty Fine” tackles the story of a Jewish family relocated from the comfort of New York to a part of the South with a strong Jewish history, but where this family fears bigotry. Although the Fine daughters are largely welcomed into their New Orleans community, the economics of the time are not as welcoming for Joe Fine. In the midst of all this change, 16-year-old Maddie begins to assert herself, knocking heads with dad.
Goodstein has confronted her past in an effective and powerful way. She provides us with a most interesting film portrait of this slice of the American Jewish story.
Jewish Standard film reviewer Eric Goldman is president of Teaneck-based Jewish DVD publisher Ergo Media. He teaches cinema at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.