‘The Birthday Cake’ Review: Baked Hoods

“With tragedy comes strength,” a priest (Ewan McGregor) tells Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) early in “The Birthday Cake,” so we can anticipate trouble. But it’s not the fairly predictable tonal arc that makes this first feature from Jimmy Giannopoulos click: It’s the deftness with which he weaves multiple threads of unease into a single strand of throttling tension.

As we learn in flashback, Gio has so far resisted his family’s efforts to toughen him up. Now, on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death, his mettle will be tested as he crosses his Brooklyn neighborhood to a memorial hosted by Angelo (Val Kilmer), a mob boss and one of Gio’s many uncles (mostly played by familiar screen wiseguys like Paul Sorvino and Vincent Pastore). A drive-by shooting has claimed Angelo’s voice and his family’s primacy, but Gio’s immediate concern is the safety of the chocolate cake he’s carrying, carefully baked by his mother (Lorraine Bracco).

Updating the Mafia drama, Giannopoulos (who wrote the screenplay with Fernandez and Diomedes Raul Bermudez) folds family secrets and fading power into a story of operatic vengeance. Warnings and threats — from rival thugs, acquaintances and the F.B.I. — follow Gio from bakery to bodega, turning his journey into a gantlet of anxiety and distrust. Friends hint darkly of looming conflicts, and a terrifying scene at a cousin’s apartment (featuring a menacing William Fichtner) leaves Gio shaken.

Unfolding mainly over one long night, “The Birthday Cake,” punchily photographed by Sean Price Williams, is brash, a little hokey and endearingly melodramatic. Giannopoulos might be inexperienced, but he’s canny with mood and unafraid to experiment with the rhythms of violence. I, for one, am keen to see what he does next.

The Birthday Cake
Rated R. No worse than any season of “The Sopranos” that includes the Bada Bing. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, FandangoNow and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.