Estella Fish is Puerto Rican, and she clasps a rosary while fretting about her directionless youngest daughter Alexis. Yet she sounds like a typical Jewish mother concerned about an underachieving adult child.
It may have something to do with the fact that Estella’s husband is Jewish, although he’s easygoing and soft-spoken rather than schticky. The truth, though, is she embodies the universal instincts of mothers everywhere, and reminds viewers of their own mom.
New York writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher modeled Estella on her own mother for the altogether winning indie comedy Sleeping With the Fishes. For her first screenplay, Fisher followed the age-old advice to write what you know.
“The characters are all loosely based on my family,” she confides in a phone interview.
“The actual story itself is a mix of fiction and truth. It is based on my upbringing of being a Puerto Rican Jew, my mother being Puerto Rican and when she met my father, made the choice to convert to Judaism.
So we were raised Jewish, and for the most part we went to Sunday school and Hebrew school.”
Sleeping With the Fishes presents a color-blind New York in which young people pay no attention to ethnicity, race and religion. Fisher’s childhood was a lot more complicated, however.
“It was a weird upbringing in the sense that my sister and I tended not to be accepted by kids in Hebrew school,” she recalls. “They would say things like, ‘You know you’re technically not a Jew’ or ‘You don’t celebrate this [holiday]’ or ‘You’re not kosher.’ They put labels on us and made us feel very excluded.”
Sleeping With the Fishes premiered last year at the Brooklyn Film Festival. It’s airing numerous times in October and November on various HBO networks and was slated to come out Tuesday on DVD.
As the film begins, Alexis (appealingly played by Gina Rodriguez) is living in Los Angeles and working humiliating jobs in a futile attempt to make ends meet. She’s summoned back to New York – her more responsible sister Kayla (an acerbic Ana Ortiz) advances the airfare – for the funeral of a random relative. Moving back in with her parents, Alexis naturally chafes against their concerned (and loving) interest.
The plot kicks into another gear when Alexis and Kayla are hired to produce a bat mitzvah party on one week’s notice with a tiny budget. Propelled by the sisters’ spiky banter and further enlivened by the droll introduction of a potential romantic partner, Sleeping With the Fishes is a warm-hearted and deeply pleasurable saga of a resourceful 20-something’s navigation past various bumps in the road.
“I didn’t want this to be a Jewish and/or a Latino film,” says Fisher, who spent four years in Los Angeles doing stand-up comedy. “For me, it was really more about the mother-daughter relationship than anything else because I tried so hard not to identify myself as one or the other – but just as Nicole – because it was so cloudy growing up and trying to figure out where I fit in.”
A turning point was the film’s West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in the summer of 2013.
“I was very nervous,” Fisher recalls, “not only because it was the first Jewish forum but the demographic of the audience was easily 50-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus. I’ve never seen more walkers and scooters in my life. And it was 500 people, too. So I’d gone from the Brooklyn Film Festival, where it was 200 mostly family and friends so I felt a little safe, into a whole different world for me, and it was probably in our top three best responses ever.”
Fisher laughs at herself, and elaborates on the happy misperception she had of her own work.
“When I wrote this film, I could have sworn that my demographic was going to be young, possibly more Latino than Jewish,” Fisher says. “I have to tell you, all the screenings we’ve had definitely I was wrong. It appeals to a much older crowd. A lot of people seem to enjoy the quality of the humor because it’s not like I’m just dashing off stereotypes. I’m speaking from a voice of my own personal experience.”
The response to Sleeping With the Fishes is especially gratifying to Fisher given her concern with depicting her family onscreen.
“The process of writing something so close to home, and with characters that are literally your family, was stifling for me,” she admits. “I was so afraid of insulting or offending or hurting feelings on any level, or portraying my mother to be super evil.”
Fisher laughs when her interviewer suggests she didn’t attend the Joan Rivers school of comedy, in which anything – especially family – is fair game and feelings don’t matter.
“I would love to get to that point in my comedy,” she asserts. “For a first script, I was overly cautious. I felt the need to protect my family, not even knowing it would get to this point with HBO. So now I’m really, really nervous.”
Not so nervous, though, to refrain from telling a childhood anecdote that provokes a chuckle at her mother’s expense.
“We did try doing seders,” Fisher says. “It just didn’t work out. My mom would always cook Puerto Rican food.”
The American Jewish-Latina indie comedy Sleeping With the Fishes is airing through November on various HBO channels.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based critic.