By Margi Herwald
Staff Reporter, Cleveland Jewish News
When Susan (Donna Casey), a college freshman, leaves the safety of her small town for the big city of Cleveland in 1973, she has no idea what she's getting into.
Settling in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, this naive girl is about to get a crash course in hippies, the homeless, Hell's Angels and Holocaust survivors.
"The Nightowls of Coventry," also known as "My Life at Marv's," is a fable about the Heights neighborhood and the type of people who inhabit it. It's premiering at the Cleveland International Film Festival as part of its "Local Heroes" series. Filmed entirely in Cleveland, "Nightowls" is the brainchild of writer/director/producer Laura Paglin, who moved here in 1985 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Local viewers who have walked the real Coventry will enjoy the black-and-white photos of the neighborhood that bookend the film and the casual local references that pepper the dialogue. The fictional "Nightowls" is more a portrait of Coventry itself than a story about the people who live there.
Marv's Deli, one of the last Jewish establishments in an area getting taken over by the "kooks" of the '70s, is the Mecca to which all Coventry denizens flock. Marv (Seymour Horowitz) hits on his waitresses, bounces checks to his suppliers, bets on the ponies and does little to remove the roaches that scurry past his corned beef and pastrami.
Open 24 hours, Marv caters to a motley crew of regulars, including a trio of old Jewish men, a pair of druggie burnouts reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob, a seductive hippie healer, and, of course, Susan, the young waitress trying to make sense of love, sex, drugs and blueberry blintzes.
Initially, the film has trouble finding its rhythm, due mainly to Casey's sleepy, understated portrayal of central character Susan. But, as the brief, 75-minute flick progresses, it and Casey settle into a comfortable rhythm, just as Susan settles into her new "family" at Marv's.
"Nightowls" is narrated by Benny (Allan Pinsker), one of the three altekockers (also including local stage actor Bernard Canepari) who preside over Marv's. This trio (one, a Holocaust survivor who eats like a pig because he's "making up for lost food") represent the area's fading Jewish immigrant past. Their alternately touching and amusing interactions are the film's most genuine beats. Pinsker's amiable voice-overs and concern over Susan, whom he takes on as a pseudo-granddaughter, give "Nightowls" a true warmth.
Some moments, like a stoner being rejected by his parents and a young lawyer's plea to keep the Coventry neighborhood friendly and respectable, play like the schmaltz Marv spreads on his sandwiches. And the film's cheezy ending is a little too pat. But the endearing and often funny interplay between characters combined with Paglin's clever "point-of-view" shots and a distinctly Jewish nostalgia for the old neighborhood make "Nightowls" an enjoyable film.
"The Nightowls of Coventry" will play at the Cleveland International Film Festival on Sun., Mar. 23, at 5 p.m.