07/12/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Movie Review: Union Square

When you first meet Lucy, played with bracing forthrightness by Mira Sorvino in Nancy Savoca's Union Square, well, let's just say she can only grow on you.

Because Lucy is -- or seems to be -- a serious pain. She's whiny, she's needy and she's abrasive without even trying to be.

But stick with her. In Savoca's brisk, surprising little film, she and Sorvino achieve a kind of raw emotion that you don't find very often. Most movies would find cute or obvious ways to redeem Lucy. Savoca does ultimately reveal her more appealing side -- or at least makes her seem less annoying -- but Sorvino earns every iota of sympathy or empathy she elicits from the viewer in Union Square, opening in limited release Friday, July 13.

When we first see Lucy, she's arriving in the titular park in Manhattan, nattering into her cell phone to an unseen man. She wants to see him -- but he's at work and doesn't have time. And he doesn't sound particularly pleased to see her. Oh, and he's married.

After going back and forth with him on the phone (and shopping for tight, revealing clothes at the now-defunct Filene's Basement), Lucy shows up at the front door of Jenny (Tammy Blanchard). Jenny, it turns out, is her sister and they obviously haven't been in touch in a while. Nor does Jenny seem particularly pleased to see Lucy.

Indeed, Jenny treats her like a bit of a ticking time bomb. Jenny's apartment -- which, it turns out, is a home office from which she seems to operate an organic-foods business -- is pristine, spotless. But one of the first things Lucy does is pull a previously unseen dog out of her handbag. Then she takes out a cigarette -- which Jenny tells her she can't smoke.

Slowly, gradually, facts begin to emerge about these two women. There apparently are secrets galore: between them, between Jenny and her live-in mate Bill (Mike Doyle) -- and between Lucy and what turns out to be her unseen husband.

The past is prologue but, at least to Jenny, the past is hidden -- from herself and her boyfriend. Lucy is a larger-than-life reminder of all the things Jenny has so tightly compartmentalized. But as Lucy builds to an emotional explosion, the lid comes off for both sisters.

Union Square, shot principally in Jenny's spotless apartment, is like a two-hander, a play in which two characters slowly strip away layers until a certain truth is revealed. But the dynamic between Sorvino and Blanchard is strong enough and Savoca's constantly moving camera is dynamic enough to keep this from seeming static.

The script by Mary Tobler makes leaps and takes chances that don't always pay off; it's messy in the same way life can be. Yet this is a film that bores into you, mostly because of Sorvino's performance, which starts out at a level of white heat and never cools below incendiary (though she has her quiet and even funny moments). Lucy is nobody's fool, except perhaps her own. Sorvino captures that sense of willful blindness to her own problems until she can no longer ignore them.

She's all angles and sharp edges; Blanchard, by contrast, is soft and yielding, afraid to raise her voice yet resisting Lucy's onslaught with a mild but passive-aggressive mien. It's a study in opposites who aren't so different after all.

Union Square may grate on you early on but, like Lucy, all it wants is for the audience to give it a chance to show what it's really about. In this case, it's not too much to ask.

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