Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) is a little girl confronted with a puzzle: how does her sister Kelly (Willa Holland) manage to guess accurately the colours of the cars that drive by while her mother (Hope Davis) is at the wheel, equally baffled? Suspecting trickery, Mary places her own hands over Kelly's eyes to make sure there is no fooling going on, but she still guesses with ease, so Mary places her hands over her mother's eyes to see if she can do the same. And that's the reason they were in a car crash, that her mother died in it, and that Mary suffers terrible nightmares.
Therefore, what else to do but head off to the place of the title, as suggested by the father, Joe (Colin Firth), as a good idea to get away from all those unhappy memories and start again - but those memories have a habit of following you around, as all three of them discover. So that's tragedy, escaping to an Italian town, and seeing the ghost of the deceased: yes, this was prolific co-writer and director Michael Winterbottom's tribute to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, only this was no horror film, more a subdued meditation on grief that occasionally sprang to life in selected scenes of panic, but nothing too jarring.
Genova is a character study first, set in the maze of streets that provide a shadowy, disorienting location for the survivor guilt that haunts the family who are desperately missing the mother, but are avoiding talking through their feelings with each other. For Joe and Kelly, this signals a new set of relationships as Joe meets old friend Barbara (Catherine Keener), an academic who doubles as a walking guidebook and is interested in rekindling whatever spark of affection there was between them. Kelly, however, sees this new life as a chance to break away from the family who remind her of her pain.
This means that Kelly starts hanging out with a group of supposedly disreuptable boys, although all we see them do that's all that bad is get high or drive recklessly, it's not as if she becomes a heroin-addicted prostitute or anything. This still means that she's growing away from her sister and father, and perhaps Joe is growing away from his daughters too as he begins to start a relationship with one of his students, rejecting Barbara. Meanwhile, Mary is left lonely and unsuccessfully trying to shrug off her shame at being the cause of her mother's death, something that Kelly cruelly accuses her of in a moment of anger.
So there's a lot going on beneath the surface, or so you would think, but actually what you're seeing is the surface after all, as Genova is not as deep, or as moving, as it sets out to be. Maybe it needed a murderer on the loose, but there's little sinister here until the finale where the mother's ghost, or what Mary has visions of at any rate (we're never clear whether this is all in her imagination or not), apparently tries to punish the girl. But what she is really doing is helping her move on, the consequences of that being that the film ends up feeling even less significant than it did in the first place. There may be an abundance of picturesque and atmospheric shots of the town and the seaside, so this could operate quite nicely as travelogue, but otherwise the whole thing feels blah. It needed a stronger climax to lead up to. Music by Melissa Parmenter.