I know what Victoria Negri‘s debut feature, Gold Star, is about, even if the thing never quite finds the footing to fulfill its promise. It’s about a young woman trapped in a life she never thought she’d lead — a part-time fitness club employee who’s lost the nerve to follow her dreams of becoming an internationally renowned concert pianist — her existential struggle for identity, reconciling desire with a rebelliously nihilistic streak, and coping with the unavoidable reality her birth provided. When your father is older than your mother’s parents, dealing with his depleting health and death is inevitable. Facing his mortality will either jumpstart her ambition to stop squandering obvious potential or expose perseverance’s futility in a world driven by tragic uncertainties and fate’s unyielding calculations.

These are the issues bearing down on Vicki (Negri playing a fictionalized version of herself going through similar circumstances to those experienced caring for her own ailing father) as the kitchen sink arrives in the form of a stroke. Her mother, Deanne (Catherine Curtin), can’t sweep this latest setback under the rug with another, “It’s only temporary.” Carmine (Robert Vaughn) doesn’t have much time left in the aftermath and everyone knows it, but none more than Vicki. She’s still a twenty-something kid finding her way. She hasn’t achieved the accomplishments she hoped her father would see before it became too late. In her mind she’s a failure, and he’ll never know whether she eventually turns things around in the future. And these thoughts make her bitterly resentful.

This is where Gold Star falters. Vicki’s so bitterly self-absorbed that it’s hard to sympathize with her. Had the film pared down its plot to focus on her relationship with Carmine and the strain his inability to talk catalyzes, this could have been a highly emotional look into the soul. Instead we find Negri piling more and more stuff onto her lead character. What was general malaise, a satisfaction with the status quo devoid of responsibilities, becomes an almost masochistic drive to reach rock bottom and increase her self-pity. For example: her boyfriend, Trevor (Max Rhyser). He’s a narcissist, too — a musician who wants nothing but sex from her. That’s enough to contrast a new love interest’s introduction. But we get an out-of-the-blue scene of duct-tape bondage instead.

Yes, this helps infer upon her psychology, but it arrives so effortlessly, and with her complying so readily, that I didn’t believe her tears afterwards. It didn’t necessarily feel abusive because it seemed like they’ve done this before. So I started wondering what made this time different? What made her grimace and cry? Was it simply that she was discovering this isn’t what she wanted anymore — an example of her personal awakening? I think this is it, but we understand without the slaps. To add a new and memorable element without ever returning to Trevor makes the decision appear incomplete. His apathy is enough to make her angry for escape while the rest becomes excessive to the point of numbing me to the real issue at hand.

I felt the same yearning for more with Vicki’s half-sister Maria (Anna Garduno) because she looked to be set up as the true face of entitlement and selfishness. Carmine’s daughter from a previous marriage, her hysterics manifest as a byproduct of greed. She wants her mother’s piano. She wants a photograph hidden away in her father’s workshop. She wants to feel welcome in the home she grew up in, but makes no effort to show Deanne and Vicki the kindness she believes she’s owed. Constant blow-ups with her husband paint her as the loud troublemaker, yet we’re suddenly made to label her the victim. All the dramatics pointed me in one direction — and then she disappears, only to return with a pleasant phone voice and in-person appreciation.

I couldn’t help but become frustrated after being pulled one way only to be shown I was wrong because it didn’t feel like I was wrong. It felt like the film was changing its mind. The same goes with the relationship of father and daughter, because Carmine disappears for a majority of the runtime, too, except for brief moments as a pawn to Vicki’s childish lack of patience and compassion. There aren’t any stories about him being a bad father in her youth to earn her disdain — besides calling Backstreet Boys garbage. So rather than create tension or a sense of history, Vicki is rendered as a brat. Carmine doesn’t deserve the treatment given him and possible new boyfriend, Chris (Jacob Heimer), doesn’t deserve her constant ire either.

Negri has a compelling tale to tell about life, death, and love — the execution is just too schizophrenic to earn our investment. There are too many characters coming and going with two boyfriends, a best friend (Rebeca Fong‘s Rachel who’s included only to supply a ride and than not before being forgotten), half-sister, mother, father, and the ambitiously added nameless fitness club member providing epiphany too swiftly to prove more than cliché. I do love to see that ambition, however, especially in a debut financed through something such as Big Vision’s Empty Wallet Kickstart Diversity program. Negri won the opportunity to create, and doing exactly that hopefully gave her the experience and confidence to grow her voice, hone her skills, and trust the universality of her message to too much glut.

We’ve all experienced crossroads similar to what Negri puts onscreen. What’s special is how she and her father grew closer during his final days — something the film delivers with a five-minute denouement steeped in metaphor. Her Director’s Statement focuses on this closure and mourning, discovering herself simultaneously with him. That’s a strong enough concept to fill a feature without shoehorning a romance on top, although I did enjoy Chris’ character. Curtin steals the show with her dedicated wife-mother role, and Vaughn silently supplies Carmine’s predicament wonderful heart and, at times, fire. Sadly, we never see them as more than an afterthought, “issues” for Vicki to overcome. For two-thirds, I only felt her anger. His stroke was ruining her life and I couldn’t recover from feeling like the character legitimately never loved him.

Gold Star played at the Buffalo International Film Festival.

Grade: C

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