This being the outer boroughs of New York, a lot can happen in a parking lot in “Somewhere in Queens.” In Ray Romano’s winning directorial debut, it’s where his onscreen alter ego Leo learns that his son Matthew (Jacob Ward), also known as Sticks for his long legs, might have the potential to play Division I college basketball – perhaps not good enough to start for Syracuse, which has sent a scout to one of his games in Glendale to look at an opposing player, but enough of a sharpshooter to be a bench player for a mid-major as a scout (PJ Byrne) informs while trying to find his car. As life-changing as this could be for Matthew when securing a spot on a college squad would mean a scholarship that would allow him to be one of the few Russos to get a higher education, it still would place second to his own parking lot encounter where his new girlfriend Dani (Sadie Stanley) first approached him and broadened his horizons as a shy kid whose physical gifts suggest a confidence he doesn’t actually have and Dani has enough for them both.
It’s a lovely coincidence that Romano finds himself behind the camera for the first time to tell the story of a family where nearly everyone has more to offer to the world than what’s being asked of them, and after proving to be one of the most welcome screen presences in any of the various genres he’s appeared in after the end of his long-running sitcom, he proves to have a real generosity as a filmmaker, making everyone in the extended Russo clan to seem like they’re the main character of the film whenever they’re at the center of the frame, even if they feel like supporting characters in their own lives. Leo has felt this for some time as he works in construction for his father Domenick (Tony LoBianco), as does practically everyone else he grew up around including his brother (Sebastian Maniscalco), who is clearly trusted more by their dad.
Dutifully helping out with home renovations during the week and obliged to attend all the celebrations at the local banquet hall that his big Italian family requires, there’s little time that Leo has for himself, yet can’t complain too much when he’s got stability with his wife Angie (Laurie Metcalf) and there’s little to rock the boat. Still, the opportunity to give Matthew a different life than the one he was consigned to holds massive appeal, perhaps more so to Leo than to his son and while “Somewhere in Queens” refreshingly isn’t a film about a father living out his dreams through his kid, he may overplay his hand in trying to get Matthew to ace a tryout at Drexel after he gets wind that Dani has broken up with him and attempts to keep the couple together long enough to improve Matthew’s self-esteem.
Leo’s plan could backfire spectacularly, but Romano’s falls into place perfectly in no small part because of the tour de force turn from Stanley as the brassy, streetwise young woman who’s able to summon an apt inspirational quote from Roosevelt, yet not entirely sure which one and smart enough to know she’s going places where Matthew can’t follow her. Then again in the script crafted with considerable care by Romano and co-writer Mark Stegemann, who previously worked such nuance into the series “Men of a Certain Age,” people will place limits on themselves by assuming too much about someone else and there are lovely surprises abound when those expectations are upended. “Somewhere in Queens” may inspire those kind of preconceptions as well given its setting or its director, but Romano could pay no greater tribute to where he grew up than to present it so warmly or the people that live there with such complexity, making it a place you won’t want to leave even when some of its characters do.
“Somewhere in Queens” will screen again at Tribeca on June 17th at 6 pm at the Village East.