Film & Television

‘All About Nina’ — Stand-Up Comedy
in the Days of #METOO

According to Nielsen, on September 27 more than 20 million households tuned in to hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing. (And that number represents only viewers of broadcast and cable channels, not those of us who streamed it live over the Internet.) Claiming that Kavanaugh had attacked and attempted to rape her years before, Dr. Ford was poised, articulate, and utterly believable.

Her words resonated with survivors of sexual assault, who must have been torn watching her. On the one hand, the opportunity to confront one’s attacker (and, as Oprah Winfrey would say, to speak one’s truth) in such a public forum must have seemed like a dream come true. On the other, it must have seemed like a nightmare. Dr. Ford, herself, stated, “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.”

Filmmaker Eva Vives’s debut feature, All About Nina, opened in select theaters the weekend after Dr. Ford’s testimony. This might seem like fortuitous timing, given that the movie’s eponymous Nina is struggling with her own deep-rooted history of sexual trauma. The script, however, was written two years before, and the true story that inspired it is one that Vives has lived with most of her life.

Vives was just 18 when she left Madrid in 1994 to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her career began early; in 2000, she won Best Short at Sundance and Cannes with Five Feet High and Rising; soon after, she co-wrote (with director Peter Sollett) Raising Victor Vargas, which was nominated for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, and she won the Humanitas Prize at Sundance. Her first solo short film, Join the Club, appeared at Sundance fifteen years later, where she also participated in the festival’s acclaimed Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab. In that workshop setting, she wrote (and rewrote, for an entire year) All About Nina.

All About Nina is the story of a gifted and extremely angry young comedienne trying to break through the boys’ club of stand-up. Nina Geld, despite her obvious intelligence, is a trainwreck. Her routines revolve around female bodily fluids and the concept that women, if they were honest about it, don’t really want “relationships.” They want someone who knows his way around “all this,” she’d say, pointing down to her pelvis; knows how to please; and knows enough to get out when the party’s over. Playing dank New York City basement clubs, Nina uses language a lot grittier than the narration I just offered. (Suffice it to say, if you have an aversion to the F-word, you will have an aversion to this entire movie. You’ve been warned.)

Each night, when Nina finishes her set, she throws up first, then downs some whiskey, and finds a stranger to go home and to bed with. Unless her on-again/off-again abusive, married, cop boyfriend happens to have broken into her apartment. In that case, she gets beaten up first and then goes to bed with him. I told you she’s a trainwreck.

It’s little wonder that she leaps at the chance to go to L.A. and audition for Comedy Prime, a thinly veiled Saturday Night Live, which is looking for a new female to join its male-heavy cast. The showrunner, Larry Michaels (again, a pretty obvious stand-in for SNL‘s Lorne Michaels) has invited a handful of hopefuls to what amounts to a stand-up bake-off. Each woman is asked to prepare three impressions, and they will all compete in front of a live audience. (Watch for a weirdly funny “Jabba the Slut,” and the elfin singer Bjork ordering a smoothie.)

There is some standard New Yorker–caught-in–Los Angeles humor — Nina moves in with a New Age goddess named Lake, drinks green juice, and attends a fundraiser for a homeless=cat sanctuary. She continues to do stand-up, and meets a potential romantic interest one night. “I’m not going to fuck you,” she warns him when he buys her a drink. “Let’s just take things one step at a time,” he smoothly suggests. As she finds herself falling for him, she begins to panic, eventually having to face why she has created such an angry, guarded persona for herself onstage and off. The climax— brutal, without jokes, and in front of an audience—will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Happy with her script, and having secured funding (which mysteriously dried up two weeks before production was slated to start and had to be backfilled), Vives was challenged to find her Nina. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight’s ET Online, she explained how important it was.

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