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“Somewhere in Queens”

Somewhere in Queens, which marks the directorial debut of Ray Romano, who also stars as Leo Russo, an Italian American who lives in Queens and works for his father’s construction company. With his wife, Angela (Laurie Metcalf), recovering from breast cancer, his high point of the week is watching his son “Sticks” (Jacob Ward) play varsity basketball. When Sticks has a shot at a college scholarship, Leo goes to dubious ends to help ensure his future.

The warm, boisterous family at the heart of Somewhere in Queens could be next-door neighbors to the Barones of Everybody Loves Raymondthe long-running sitcom that earned Romano his fame. Metcalfe is sterner and more deeply Italian than Patricia Heaton’s Deb, but the dynamic of harried housewife and hapless husband remains. So too does the presence of an antagonistic brother and a loud, loving family constantly in each other’s business. It is this family that gives the film its heart.

We’ve seen plenty of Italian broods in media, but generally they are more The Sopranosless Modern FamilyRomano and co-writer Mark Stegemann go to great lengths to paint a family that is charming and hilarious in their relatability. I’m Croatian, not Italian, but the sacred nature of a (very early) Sunday dinner; the ubiquity of family celebrations (often tied to religious sacraments); and the loud, nosy, loving manner the Russos possess is immediately familiar to my Mediterranean heritage.

We get hints from the beginning that Leo is dissatisfied with his life — and he funnels those regrets into Sticks. Leo’s midlife crisis comes via his aspirations for his son. It’s as if Leo were a modern-day George Bailey, the central figure of It’s a Wonderful Life; Leo learns the lesson of the value of his life not from an angel, but through his misguided efforts to help his son. Leo’s choices and what he asks of Sticks’ ex-girlfriend Dani (a radiantly morally conflicted Sadie Stanley) are downright icky if you think about them too hard, but the film has the sense to call attention to that rather than sweep it under the rug.

Leo is obsessed with Rocky, with rooting for the underdog in the face of life’s obstacles. But Somewhere in Queens doesn’t have the scale of a Rocky film. That’s in the case of tone and heart, not production budget. It’s engaging and tackles everything from parental expectations to the trauma of cancer survivors, but it’s also relatively slight. Even when Leo gets drunk and his secrets are exposed, there’s no great moment of reckoning with his father, no sense that he will never forget to appreciate what he has.

Romano is a skilled, if not flashy director, bringing a simplicity to his framing. The Russos inhabit a world that bristles with its normalcy, and Romano captures that in every image, whether it be the greenery of a college campus or the lived-in trappings of a kitchen. There’s nothing particularly visually arresting, but he does have an eye for human relationships and naturalistic performances.

The title, linking Leo and Sticks to their hometown, might be location-based, but it’s the acting, not the vistas that really shines here, from Angela’s tearful admission that she wants her son to stay home because she’s worried about losing time with him to Leo’s gradual realization that no part of him wants to be unfaithful to his wife. Stanley is the breakout as the entirely humane Dani, torn between her desire to help Sticks flourish and her disinterest in him as a long-term romantic partner. She brings her internal conflict to vivid life with a mere furrow of the brow or a sidelong glance.

Because the mid-budget movie feels more on the verge of extinction than ever, I’m loath to call Somewhere in Queens forgettable. But it is. It’s quiet and charming and has some beautiful, if also familiar things to say about fathers and sons, and the question of legacy. But it’s not breaking any new or revelatory ground. Romano takes the beats of Everybody Loves Raymond and replaces the comedy with a bittersweet melancholy. For better or worse, the dysfunction — and the love — remain.