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Little Tito and the Aliens (Tito e gli alieni) - Rounding up the Usual Suspects
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Little Tito and the Aliens (Tito e gli alieni)
SIFF's capsule summary: "In this moving family drama, a widowed Italian scientist living isolated within a shipping container smack dab in the middle of nowhere Nevada is asked to care for his teenage niece and precocious young nephew, forcing his curmudgeonly heart to find new life." (Italy, 2017, 92 minutes)
SIFF link: Little Tito and the Aliens

The mother of 16-year-old Anita (Chiara Stella Riccio) and seven-year-old Tito (Luca Esposito) died some time ago. When their father also dies, they're put on a plane as unaccompanied minors and sent to Las Vegas, the airport nearest their mad scientist uncle (Valerio Mastandrea), who is known as "the Professor". He's not much of a driver, so his best friend Stella (Clémence Poésy) drives to help pick them up.

Instead of the excitement of Las Vegas that Anita had hoped for, the Professor lives in a shipping container fitted out as a cozy little house in the desert near the town of Rachel. When not slacking, he works at a secret military facility within "Area 51". When the kids arrive, the Professor shows them the lodging he prepared for them: an inflatable house he bought on-line. But otherwise, he doesn't seem to welcome them very much. However, Stella is pleased to have kids around.

Tito is a curious kid, and soon enough he snoops into the bunker where the Professor does his work, and discovers the talking computer that manages the Professor's research, which seems to have as much to do with the Professor's late wife as the space aliens suggested by the title and Area 51 pop culture. Anita is bored by the desert, except on occasions when men who are too old for a 16-year-old catch her attention.

7 Good The film was written and directed by Paola Randi. I found the script to be a somewhat muddled hodgepodge of Area 51 pop culture, technobabble, child cuteness, teen moods and defiance, and the plot line of a curmudgeon shaken out of the doldrums by the arrival of something new. Although it's a mess, it's a charming mess; I rate the writing fair. The directing is quite a bit better; the humor is timed well, the pacing is good, and the film is visually interesting; I'd call it very good.

The acting by Valerio Mastandrea is good, but he struggles to rise above the writing for his character. Clémence Poésy is excellent, except late in the film (as described in the spoilers section). Luca Esposito is mostly expected to be a charming kid, and he is good at that. Chiara Stella Riccio is good as a moody teen, and seems to be the actor who takes her performance most seriously.

Usually, it's difficult for a film to rise above a weak script. But like several films at SIFF this year, this one is elevated by visual treats. I found the effects shots cheesy, but the sets, use of locations, and props all make the film visually interesting. And Esposito gets away with a lot just by being cute.

Overall, I rate the film almost good. A lot of others in the audience were more charmed than I was.

[Click to read spoilers.] SPOILERS: The spoiler point about the Professor's late wife is that his research is really more about trying to speak with her; his technological gadgetry seems to enable communication with the dead in limited circumstances. Not only does he want to communicate with his dead wife, Tito wants to communicate with his dead father.
    The weak point that I mentioned about Poésy's performance is that her character becomes romantically interested in the Professor late in the film, and neither she nor Mastandrea make the sudden romance very convincing. They're great together as best friends, however. End spoilers.

Languages: English, Italian, and a little Spanish, with English subtitles.

Rating: I don't think this film has a US rating (yet), but I'd guess it would rate a "PG-13", unless some language slipped past my notice. Rating: This film has a US rating of "PG-13", for reason.

Screening: 2 pm, Pacific Place (room 4).
Audience: a typical SIFF press screening crowd, around 100, about 285 seats (estimated capacity).

Snacks: none.

Ads and announcements: no ads at press screenings; SIFF volunteer "J" provided announcements.

Notes to myself:

SIFF statistics: 93 films (60 features, 27 shorts), 63 time slots, 6 parties. ("J": only four parties, and 20 shorts, and two fewer films. I saw three features she missed, and this morning she saw one that I missed.)

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