Warning: this article contains spoilers for Adventures in Public School, 500 Days of Summer, and Netflix’s Love.
There is a moment in Adventures in Public School, the second feature film by Canadian director Kyle Rideout, when you think the strikingly original romantic comedy will come to its genre-determined conclusion. Our hero, spending most of the film trying to catch the eye of the girl-next-door, seems to have her figured out. After much dancing and build up there is that kiss and the sparks fly.
Liam, played by Daniel Doheny, is a socially awkward, homeschooled kid who gives up a fast-track to Cambridge to spend a year in public school chasing a girl he stumbles across while writing his final exam. It’s done with all the typical, planned magical nuances that braces the opening act of any rom-com. Liam’s on one specific life trajectory and then bam – there’s a girl. In this case, Anastasia, played by Siobhan Williams. Cue the long waltz to the fireworks where they lock lips and live happily ever after.
On paper it’s a cut and dry romantic comedy archetype. Take a loveable dork, give him a girl that’s out of his league and have him spend the duration of the film winning her over. If Rideout wanted to stick to basics he’d still have delivered a winning formula. There is enough in the film to set it apart from its would-be-stock rom-com brethren, such as the Canadian wit and the remarkable performance of Judy Greer as Liam’s helicopter mom, Clair. Even the brilliant cameos — including one by Russell Peters playing a brutally honest and self-loathing guidance counsellor.
Of course, after that scene where Anastasia kisses Liam and sends the prescribed sparks across the theatre, Rideout adds a caveat which takes the film a step above. In the closing act, the flame between our star and his crush simply fades.
There is no real reason why. Anastasia simply stays with her jerk boyfriend. Liam goes off to Cambridge. She — and perhaps he as well — stay a what if, and their romance is best defined by a different cliche: the one that got away.
At best, the goal of a romantic comedy is to capture the intensely real emotions of falling in love in a simple, digestible and funny way. In doing so we forgive them for a lot. Yes, people fall in love on screen way too quickly. Yes, most things characters in romantic comedies do out of desperation would be deal breakers in real life. It’s true that real relationships don’t move in a straight line, they zig and they zag, they lull and they’re sometimes straight up boring.
But by far the worst thing romantic comedies give to us is the notion that love will always be wrapped up in a tidy bow at the end. Anyone who’s loved anyone knows that relationships are often defined not by a honeymoon stage lasting well off into the distance, but instead by a monumental effort leading nowhere.
In 500 Days of Summer, during the classic slow dance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, we see this play out in a much more tragic and real way. We’re forced to witness the stupidly striking and perfect chemistry between a couple as they fall in love, get together and paint a sprawling Los Angeles with enough memories and markers that all the brightness of their city seems simply cruel and empty when it all falls apart.
In Netflix’s Love staring Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs, we’re forced — almost cruelly — to watch as two imperfect people, perfect for one another, who can’t help but dismiss, cheat on and ghost each other. Their end is yet to be determined since the show is only on season two. But the last scene, where Rust’s character feels a renewed and refreshed sense of relief in embracing his girlfriend, while the guy she cheated on him with sneaks out the back, stands out for its brutally real depiction of how messy this whole falling in love thing can be.
While all these titles can be grouped by their embrace of the darker aspects of dating, they are also united by the one thing good romantic comedy can’t do without: they are hilariously funny. Which made their ends and darker bits all the more powerful.
Comedy, it seems, works just as well, if not better, when attempting to explain the common tragedy of real relationships. In doing so, filmmakers have the chance to give us content which helps us process the times in our lives when loving someone just isn’t enough to keep them around.
In this aspect, Adventures In Public School knocks it out of the park.
Adventures In Public School can currently be pre-ordered on iTunes.
TIFF Top Ten ran from Jan. 12 to the 21.