Dark is the New Rom-Com

In today’s digitally social world, where most of our relationships are defined, fostered, (and often exaggerated) online, we’re paradoxically experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Though we have access to meeting and stalking hundreds of unsuspecting people a day, we struggle to truly connect with those closest to us.

But I’m not here to complain about the perils of social media. It’s true that living in this digital age gives us some pretty great advantages. For one, the ease, access and affordability of technology offers hope in the production and distribution of art and content that provide the very social commentary needed to help us navigate through such uneasy times.

Insightful stories emerging in today’s media reflect these concerns and help us to reconsider how a healthy relationship is supposed to function. Noga Pnueli’s screenplay submission into this year’s Black List competition does just that.  

Meet Cute is a highly fantasized story about an eccentric protagonist looking for love in the exact same place, night after night. It’s a romantic-comedy for the modern era, offering a more realistic take on today’s relationships and the struggle that comes from trying to maintain them.

The script is a fresh of breath air, as well-constructed and relatable romantic-comedies seem to be hard to come by these days. With a tendency to focus on heterosexual narratives, the very idea of the rom-com falls under scrutiny due to increased criticism and exploration of women’s roles in such films.

The Bechdel Test created by Alison Bechdel is a tool that audiences, writers and critics have used to determine gender bias in film. A key component of the test calls out scripts that feature women who have nothing much to talk about aside from their issues with men; I’d imagine this contributes to the reason there is a decline in the popularity of such Hollywood features.

Our society is progressing. Not only has our idea of what’s an acceptable in typical romantic relationship shifted, but a high divorce rate leaves us jaded over traditionally romantic notions of happily ever after. We can no longer relate to the same cookie-cutter characters who await rescue of a knight in shining armor, or the graceful woman who happens upon the exact man of her dreams on a crowded subway platform.

Excerpt from  Meet Cute , written for the 2019 Black List Screenplay competition by Noga Pnueli

Excerpt from Meet Cute, written for the 2019 Black List Screenplay competition by Noga Pnueli

Though most traditional rom-coms are now outdated and could use a revamp, it’s my opinion that without these stories completely, we’d be missing out on something incredibly valuable. We look to film narratives to help us make sense of our own experiences, and the rom-com genre assists us in considering the way we relate and connect to others.

Relationships are complex, complicated, and evolving, much like the characters we prefer to see on screen. As a result, our narratives are now changing to reflect this desire to find stories we can actually relate to. We’re finally beginning to see protagonists in our media we can empathize with. Series’ like the animated Netflix original, Bojack Horseman, and the FX sitcom You’re The Worst portray flawed characters dealing with very human struggles related to mental illness and how this impacts our relationships.

In Meet Cute, Sheila and Gary both have varying forms of mental illness. Gary compulsively orders objects into neat stacks and has major freak outs if he messes anything up. Sheila lies regularly, and the very reason for time traveling in the first place is a final act of desperation as she suffers from severe depression. Both are trying desperately to control things they can’t. This is comforting to see as it reminds us that, in life, sometimes things get messy.

Comedy has always been the perfect channel to comment on the human condition, and today’s comedies are starting to bring modern love stories into question. Across today’s television streaming landscapes today, the romantic-comedy has shifted into something darker. With Daniel Sloss’ Jigsaw comedy special on Netflix, (which has allegedly caused thousands of couples to break-up since its release), Amazon’s Forever, or Hulu’s Shrill,  writers often approach these relationships with a critical view. But audiences approve because it’s a more realistic one, which helps us to ruminate on all of the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

Meet Cute fits right into this new dark-rom-com genre. Pnueli inflates the genre with additional absurdity and delightful surrealism that keeps us engaged as well as interested, even with a script gets repetitive after a while. In the entire first half, there are just the smallest of changes in dialogue and setting sprinkled throughout. This repetition is slightly maddening and becomes a bit tired by the second act, but the action quickly pick up again once we start to feel Sheila and Gary’s once perfect relationship begin to dismantle.

Similarly to quirky features like the melancholic Wristcutters: A Love Story or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Meet Cute’s story uses similar sci-fi devices to drive it’s themes home. A conveniently placed time-machine found in a Korean nail salon grants Sheila the ability to travel back to the night she first met Gary. The fun begins when we get to experience their first date several times over due to Sheila’s relentlessness.

Unlike most typical rom-coms where we get to watch the main couple slowly fall in love throughout the course of the film, Meet Cute tells a story of a couple who falls in love multiple times over, and then out of love, and then in love again, and repeat, — a much more relatable story that reflects the cycle of relationships actual human beings are accustomed to.

After nearly a year of doing this repetitive time traveling, things start to get pretty old for Sheila. Like in most of our relationships, we tend to replay the happiest parts in our minds, over and over until we’ve convinced ourselves we’re happy. But as Sheila relives the same night with Gary, she becomes increasingly annoyed with his qualities that she was once was more patient and forgiving of in the beginning. For me, this begs the question: are we destined to outgrow all of our relationships?

Relationships always seem perfect while they last. Shelia’s and Gary’s relationship starts to break down after she decides she wants to change things up. She decides to go back further in time and reconstruct Gary’s childhood, to eliminate his trauma and rewrite his history. While she thinks this is a romantic gesture, Gary is mortified. He tells Sheila that he feels stuck in some sick purgatory, unable to move forward in life while she pulls the strings and makes choices that aren’t hers to make. This is really the first riff we see in their relationship, out of all the times Sheila lives it. In my experience, even the best relationships start to fall apart when we think we can change the other person.

Most importantly, relationships can’t be one sided to function healthily. Throughout the course of the story, Gary barely has a role to play, in that he’s not making any major decisions (granted this is because he doesn’t have any active power to do so.) This reluctant passivity remains up until the final climax when Gary decides to take matters into his own hands and seek out this time machine for himself. (Another lesson in romantics that Pnueli likely slips in there: a relationship should be mutual.)

Despite Sheila’s meddling or Gary’s lack of motivation, regardless of how many times the first date succeeds or bombs, even with a history mental illness and childhood trauma, the couple still find themselves enamored by the other person. From that mutual respect and understanding of another’s quirks and flaws, individuals in relationships still make the effort to love that person each and everyday.

The power of the story Pnueli shares is not just that people and relationships are flawed, but that this impossible idea of true love only works if we’re realistic about it. Perhaps people are really “meant to be,” but only when they are truly themselves.