Vanessa McDonnell’s John’s of 12th Street, a warm, affectionate sketch of the eponymous East Village restaurant, is the kind of insistently low-key documentary in which a mild argument between co-owner Nick Sitnycky and a handyman over where to get a stopper for the front door constitutes a relatively heated moment.
A mere hour long, the movie could stand to be more discerning with its material: Where some of the staff’s spontaneous asides are engaging (one terrific scene has two off-screen cooks conversing in Spanish about charter schools, the camera fixed on their busy hands), others (like one patron’s Madonna story) are arguably long-winded to a fault.
Nevertheless, McDonnell’s commitment to capturing the day-to-day routine — the opening shot is of a clock and a calendar — is mostly contagious. (This is McDonnell’s first feature doc; she’s also a programmer at Williamsburg’s cozy Spectacle and a contributing editor at Screen Slate, that invaluable website that catalogs daily repertory screenings.) The dialed-down stakes allow for involving process-oriented beats (rolling meatballs, slicing chicken, filling salt containers) as well as for offhand conversation typical of any collaborative workplace.
A 106-year-old Italian-American restaurant, John’s is almost obligatorily depicted as representative of a bygone era. (The press notes discouragingly describe “intermittent talk of a sale of the restaurant.”) Adding to this feeling of poignancy is the fact that the second owner — Mike Alpert (a/k/a Myron Weiner) — passed away in 2013 after filming was complete. But the movie gives Alpert at least one scene that encapsulates the enduring appeal of a neighborhood institution like John’s: From across the restaurant, the camera watches him as he chats up a dining couple (“When were you here last?”), introduces himself, and ultimately sits down to join them for an extended conversation.