One of the nice thing about being at Sundance is that the festival is a break from watching movies about people who are ostensibly like me: young, white, urban professionals. That said, when I did see a movie about those kinds of people, specifically, Save the Date, it was a pleasure to spend time with a romantic comedy that, with one significant exception, felt vastly more emotionally true and specific than the kinds of relationship stories Hollywood seems convinced women like me want to spend the money we’re not already laying down for shoes to go see.
In Save the Date, Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) runs a bookstore but hopes to make a living from her illustrations (drawn by graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown, who wrote the script with Egan Reich and director Michael Mohan). As the movie opens, she’s moving in with long-term boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), who’s half of a band with Andrew (Martin Starr, the man in movies who does the most to hide his sexiness), who is engaged to Sarah’s sister Beth (Alison Brie, playing a grown-up Annie from Community). Commitment-shy and career-insecure, Sarah breaks up with and moves out on Kevin when he impulsively proposes to her, then jumps into a new relationship with lovelorn bookstore customer Jonathan (Mark Webber) while trying to deal with helping an increasingly anxious Beth plan her wedding.
None of this is incredibly new territory, but all of the relationships have a specificity that works. Beth and Sarah are clearly playing out long-established scripts as they move through a series of swiftly-unfolding big events. “I’m waiting for marriage,” Sarah jokes to Beth as they drive her stuff to Kevin’s place. “I thought you didn’t believe in marriage,” Beth ventures, torn between being excited about the prospect of her sister joining her on the road to marriage and nerves about whether Sarah can handle the commitment. “I don’t,” Sarah deadpans, “So I’m going to die a virg.” After her breakup with Kevin, Sarah tells Beth, “All I want is to get food that’s really bad for us and for you to give me a lot of sympathy.” But Beth, who disapproves of Sarah’s flightiness, is hesitant. “I’ll get really bad food,” she compromises. “But I’m not giving you sympathy.” Similarly, Andrew and Kevin are friends of long-enough standing that Andrew can muse to Kevin, “Do you think she and Beth are the same at sex?”
And as Sarah gets to know Jonathan, their conversations have a nice tinge of nerves and wonder. “I stalk your friend quietly. Because it’s a bookstore,” Jonathan jokes to Beth as he works up the courage to talk to her at the concert where Kevin proposes. Later, as they get to know each other, Jonathan explains to Sarah that he wants to be marine biologist that “I know there isn’t an ocean in Kansas City. And that’s why I became totally obsessed with it. And waves are amazing.” “It’s just so cool that you care so much about something,” Sarah tells him, recognizing in Jonathan the shared risk of having a dream that could disappoint you if it doesn’t come true. It’s a nice movement that feels of the recession and the generation without being bogged down by it.
Similarly, the movie isn’t afraid to make drama out of human decency and indecency without going over the top. When Kevin confronts Jonathan over his relationship with Sarah, Jonathan says mildly, “If I were you, I wouldn’t have done this, but I’d have been really upset…I want you to know I’m entirely sympathetic to your situation.” “Dude,” Kevin tells him. “I’m just pissed you don’t suck.” Those emotions are big enough.
The one place the movie steps wrong, and that I think male writers and directors tend to get wrong frequently, is in a surprise pregnancy plotline. I understand that continuing pregnancies is a way of keeping a plot going, and of upping the emotional impact of a relationship. But there’s something kind of odd about when male writers think women will be less than careful about birth control. Being uncertain about the state of your career or indecisive about committing to a relationship doesn’t automatically being careless about birth control, be it the Pill, an IUD, or simply regular condom use. And I’m not sure why those two things seem to go together, whether here or in Knocked Up. If anything, if you’re worried about your future, that seems like a time that the well-educated, upper-middle class heroines in these movies would be particularly careful about getting pregnant. At least Save the Date, unlike Knocked Up, has the courage to at least utter the word abortion. But a movie that’s realistic and tender and smart about sex and pleasure seems like it could have been more thoughtful and internally consistent when it comes to sex and reproduction.