THE BIG SICK

**** (out of five)

I’d given up on RomComs because it felt like RomComs had given up. Formulaic, uninspired, derivative, implausible and lacking in able and likeable talent (with the possible exception of Mila Kunis), RomComs for at least a decade (since Knocked Up) have been almost entirely crappy. But The Big Sick wins on every level. It has an extremely smart, continually funny screenplay that constantly diverges from the established and utterly boring formula; it has superb and truely likeable performances from every single performer involved; and it is not only plausible, it feels realistic – because it’s based on the romantic “origin story” of its screenwriters, and they’ve worked hard to keep things real.

They are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who have now been married for ten years. They might have “met cute”, but their courtship endured what will go down as a high-water mark for RomCom complications, along with Knocked Up’s pregnancy, Harry and Sally’s “sex in friendship” conundrum and Alvy Singer’s distrust of any woman that would actually want to be with someone like him. I’m not going to spoil the plot, and I highly recommend avoiding all trailers and promotional material for the film, such as you can, before seeing it. Suffice to say, it’s the kind of original plot twist that would be pretty hard to swallow if it wasn’t true – but it’s true.

That’s the secret sauce flavouring this wonderful movie. It’s sincere. Although the couple have acknowledged quite a few deviations from their actual story in their script, there was only one moment in the whole film that I figured had to represent dramatic license, and it was hardly a deal-breaker. For the most part I swallowed it all, and it tasted authentic and fantastically, deliriously fresh. Knocked Up was “semi”-autobiographical (written and directed by Judd Apatow, who produces here) as was Annie Hall, and maybe that’s what RomComs need: truth.

The two main characters even keep their names, although only Kumail plays himself. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, who has not had a good big-screen vehicle since Ruby Sparks in 2012. She is wonderful here; her Emily has all the attractive qualities necessary to the genre, but also depth, complexity and nuance. She is not wildly dissimilar, physically, to the real Emily, and I imagine Miss V. Gordon must find the experience of watching “herself” eerie; she should also find it deeply satisfying.

As himself, Nanjiani has to carry the movie, appearing in almost every scene, and he makes the leap from established television presence (Silicon Valley and a million appearances in shows from Veep to Archer) and scene-stealing day player (a million comedies including Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Central Intelligence, Sex Tape, Bad Milo, Hell Baby, The Five Year Engagement etc) to big-screen leading man admirably. He definitely has a rhythm, cadence and comedic style which, like that of Woody Allen, follows him from role to role – an inoffensive low-key sarcasm – but it fits him like a glove here, because he’s really, truly, playing himself.

Director Michael Showalter not only gets superb performances and honours the integrity of the script; he also proves a master of tone. For a film dealing with much higher stakes than your average RomCom, The Big Sick never once drops into maudlin sentimentality – the jokes never stop coming even when things get real, but things are allowed to get real. The use of music is restrained, the camera is unobtrusive yet precise, and pratfalls, excessive profanity, garish sight gags and silly set-pieces have no place. This beautiful film will appeal to all, but it is built by grown-ups, and not afraid to wear its intelligence proudly.

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Gordon and Nanjiani.

FIRST GIRL I LOVED

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*** (out of five)

Writer / director Kerem Sanga’s extremely modest high-school romance is chock-full of awkward moments, wrenching emotions, jealousies, painfully intense longings and savage betrayals. In other words, it really gets high-school and teenage love. In doing so, it stands apart from similar indie fare; the plot is fresh, non-formulaic and carries no narrative guarantees.

Anne (Dylan Gelula) is best friends with Mateo (Clifton Martinez). One afternoon she tells him she’s in love with a notable slugger on the softball team, Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), and her confession sends their relationship into stormy waters.

Gelula is quite brilliant as the tentative, often extremely awkward Anne, who is an academic powerhouse but a social dork; her fitful, at times terrified pursuit of the seemingly confident jockette Sasha can be fist-grippingly cringe-inducing, as it should be. Her emotions, feelings, energies, hormones, loyalties and needs are all over the place. She’s a mess, and feels real as hell.

Some of the behaviors on display are really quite intense, and while the film is hardly a thriller, it definitely has an edge missing from many a “cuter” coming-of-age and coming out in high school festival crowd-pleaser. The conflicts, prejudices and obstacles Anne faces are atypical of the genre because they come from within her small circle; her slack-jawed incredulity at her treatment will resonate powerfully with many. And the depiction of high school as a bureaucracy is wryly brilliant. The film touches on some really serious themes – including the issue of consent – and deals with them believably (which is something you can very rarely say about films set in high school). Overall, a quiet achiever with an enormous amount of integrity.

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