Derek Michalak may wish to add a new credit to his professional accomplishments: alchemist. Michalak, who is well known in Off-Broadway theater and who has occasionally turned up in small roles on several television programs, gets the starring role in the New York-based indie “Nina” and single-handedly elevates an enervated screenplay with an extraordinary performance.
“Nina” focuses on three people trying to overcome emotional and physical damages: a diner cook with a drinking problem, a Russian-born waitress in an abusive marriage and an underage runaway. The film’s screenplay is a riot of clichés and unconvincing plot twists – including a championship boxing tournament that seems to come out of nowhere – and the film is burdened with artsy visual and audio gimmicks that would have been better left in film school. The acting, on the whole, is nothing worth mentioning.
But “Nina” is saved by Michalak’s central performance as the alcohol-fueled cook. He brings a brooding presence that is fairly startling – his character’s angst is so raw and genuine that it often seems that he is the subject of a documentary. Michalak achieves more with his silent gaze than most actors can do with reams of dialogue – whether quietly seething when encountering a street gang that left him battered, hopefully gazing at a would-be object of affection or searching a far horizon for hope to lift him from his pain, Michalak is a refreshing force of energy that gives “Nina” far more cred than it would otherwise demand.
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