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September 14, 2017

‘Wetlands’ takes us Downnashore for the story of life when the shoobies leave

Filmmaker Emanuele Della Valle’s debut effort inspired by South Jersey coast

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"Wetlands" AAA Auction/for PhillyVoice

A screen grab from "Wetlands."

The Jersey Shore is certainly no stranger to Hollywood. During the almost-40 years of the legal casino era, the glitz and glitter (and grit) of Atlantic City have been featured in numerous films, from Louis Malle’s 1980 art-house masterpiece, “Atlantic City,” to the Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker saga “Rounders” to “Duane Hopwood,” a little-seen (and grossly underrated) character study starring David Schwimmer as a sad sack casino employee whose alcoholism wreaks havoc on his life.

But in Emanuele Della Valle’s “Wetlands,” which opens Sept. 15 at the Ritz Bourse in Philly and on AMC screens at the Neshaminy and Cherry Hill malls, AyCee has little more than a cameo. It’s the rest of the coast, from Atlantic City south to Cape May, that plays a crucial role in the noirish piece starring Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a morally ambiguous, emotionally storm-tossed, recovering-junkie, ex-Philly detective trying to rebuild his life and repair his shattered relationship with his teen daughter by relocating to the fictional town of Atlantic Cape. The film’s other topliner is Heather Graham.

Writer-director Della Valle conceivably could have set his moody, quietly engrossing debut virtually anywhere. But, he explained during a recent phone call, his personal life dictated that it had to be Downnashore.

“That’s what happens when you marry a girl from Philadelphia,” offered longtime New Yorker Della Valle (no, it’s not Italian for “Delaware Valley”) in an accent colored by his hometown, a hamlet on Italy’s Adriatic coast. “It’s 15 years that I’ve spent a lot of time at the Shore. I have a place in Stone Harbor.”

According to Della Valle, while growing up in a small beach town, he was always intrigued by the changes that occurred when the tourists departed at summer’s end while the indigenous population—including those who exist on society’s fringes-- reclaimed their turf.

“Wetlands”—whose title is taken from the marshes that frame the barrier islands on which the story unfurls—is filled with atmospheric shots of the swampy expanses. In aggregate, these visual interludes create a tangible character that helps sell the tale being told. 

“I thought the Shore…had an incredible cinematic potential that was unexplored,” reasoned Della Valle. And, he continued, the optics were a perfect fit for his aesthetic sense.

“I’m in love with noir literature, with noir films. So, I thought it could be a hell of a setting to recreate some of these things.”

The easy way out would have been to set “Wetlands” against the backdrop of the casinos. But that, he insisted, was never an option.

“I thought [casinos were] one of the usual images we have,” he said. “When we think of Atlantic City, we think of the casinos. I wanted to keep it more unusual. I wanted to portray places that don’t come to mind--especially if you’re not from the area--when you think about the Shore.

One of the movie’s subplots involves the life-or-death betting on Eagles games by a police detective played by Christopher McDonald (currently seen as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys in various episodes of HBO’s “Ballers”). Della Valle couldn’t resist inserting the region’s obsession with its NFL franchise into his story.

“I don’t understand much about American football,” he admitted. “I grew up with [soccer]. But I married into a Philadelphia family. Trust me, I get to see a lot of the Eagles. All I hear the last few years is a lot of fans being frustrated with the Eagles—whether they’re right or wrong, right?

“I tried to insert a little bit of that--that frustration with the Birds not winning as they should.”

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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