“With tragedy comes strength,” a priest (Ewan McGregor) tells Xiao (Shiloh Fernandez) at the beginning of “The Birthday Cake,” so we can anticipate trouble. But it’s not the quite predictable tonal arc that makes this first feature from Jimmy Gianopoulos Click: It’s the cleverness with which he weaves multiple threads of restlessness into a single strand of throttling tension.
As we learn in the flashback, Xiao has so far resisted his family’s attempts to toughen him up. Now, on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death, his ability will be tested when he crosses his Brooklyn neighborhood to a memorial hosted by Angelou (val kilmer), a mob boss and one of Xiao’s many uncles (played mostly by familiar screen wise men like Paul Sorvino and Vincent Pastor). A drive-by shooting claims Angelo’s voice and the primacy of his family, but Gio’s immediate concern is the safety of the chocolate cake he is carrying, carefully baked by his mother (Lorraine Bracco).
Updating the Mafia drama, Giannopoulos (who co-wrote the screenplay with Fernández and Diomede’s Ral Bermudez) turns family secrets and fading power into a tale of operative vengeance. Warnings and threats from rival thugs, acquaintances and the FBI – follow Xiao from the bakery to the bodega, turning his journey into anxiety and disbelief. The friends give a deep hint of impending conflict, and a terrifying scene (featuring a dangerous William Fichtner) at a cousin’s apartment shakes Gio.
Mainly on a long night, “The Birthday Cake”, a picture drawn by Sean Price Williams, is brash, a bit hokey and sweetly melodramatic. Giannopoulos may be naive, but he is clever with moods and is afraid to experiment with the rhythms of violence. I, for one, look forward to seeing what he does next.
Rated R. No worse than any season of “The Sopranos” that includes a big binge. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy Apple TVhandjob fandangonau and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.