A Straight Girl and a Lesbian Walk Into a Bar...
This month we've already reviewed a couple of films focused on dudes learning to be friends and finding themselves: I Love You, Man and Role Models. And while it's great to see male friendships getting solid representation that's more than them just watching TV, drinking brews, and being "bros", we also should have that for women. Female friendships are better represented in film and television, given more nuance that their male counterparts, but there is still room to expand and explore the genre in ways that, maybe, most audiences aren't really expecting.
Billed as a "romantic comedy", 2014's Life Partners is that, but not in the way most would expect. It's the story of one woman who finds her true love and falls deeply and madly for them. Except that relationship is only the catalyst to what the film really wants to explore: her friendship with her best friend. It's a movie about two women trying to stay connected when one of them starts moving on with their life, and that's a subject you don't tend to see very often. Women find love in films, and their kooky best friends support them and hang out on the sidelines. It has to suck, though, when you're one half of a duo and then you're the one getting sidelined. That's the dynamic of Life Partners, and it's an angle that absolutely feels fresh in a studio story.
The film stars Gillian Jacobs as Paige Kearns, an up-and-coming environmental lawyer who is quickly climbing the ladder at her film. She's straight, and single, and while not looking for a guy she would really like to eventually end up in a relationship. Her best friend is Sasha Weiss (Leighton Meester), a sort-of-aspiring musician who works a shit job as a receptionist to help pay the bills. She's lesbian, and essentially in the same place as Paige when it comes to finding a partner. She'd be happy to have one, but isn't too worried about it.
Sasha starts to feel pressure, though, when Paige meets Tim (Adam Brody). Although Tim isn't exactly the guy that picky Paige envisioned falling for, there's something charming about him. One date quickly leads to more, and then suddenly Sasha finds that all the time she used to spend with Paige is getting taken up by Tim instead. She feels left out, alienated even, and she doesn't know what to do. She bounces from one bad relationship to another, dating girls whose lives are even messier than her own, and all the while she struggles to figure out whet she really wants to do with her life. An Paige starts to feel more and more like she's losing touch with the one person in her life, Sasha, who always used to be there for her. Can they still find their friendship when they're on completely different paths?
The first thing that struck me about this film was how easy and natural the friendship between the two leading ladies feels. This is a friendship that has to feel like it's been around since forever. They're best friends and they can't just tell us that, they have to show it in how they act with each other. It has to be so natural that we don't even question it. That's how Jacobs and Weiss handle their characters and its pitch perfect. The film says they're "life partners", right there in the title, and that's the friendship presented here.
But what's really interesting is that the film never feels the need to fill us in on their back story. They could be friends from elementary school, or high school, or band camp. Whatever you can think of, but those details (which would have to be told to us) aren't really necessary to the story, so the film never bothers. It relies on the easy chemistry of the leads, and a few scenes at the start where we get to see them hanging out and learning their lives here and now, to tell us all we need to know. It's smart writing, the kind that trusts the audience to just be there for it, and it works.
By that same token, the film never bothers trying to "explain" why a straight girl and a lesbian are best friends. You just know a different, worse film (a machine made, studio-note edited film) would have had to justify it some how. "Oh, they tried dating once," or, "the lesbian only came out recently," or something. They'd want to hammer it home and find dumb ways to make the lesbianism relate to the friendship on a romantic level. Instead, Life Partners just makes it a matter of fact part of the friendship. One is straight, one is gay, and that's that. Everything else that happens after could have happened with both of them dating women, or men, or whatever. The important part is that these two are platonic best friends, and the film is all about their friendship now, as the ladies evolve from here.
That's not to downplay the romance angle of the film, which is there. The chemistry between Jacobs and Brody works well. Brody's Tim is a side character in this film, a co-star in a different film. It's an interesting angle to take when, normally, romantic comedies focus on the romantic leads. Here, though, Tim is relegated more to the "best friend" role, watching the two women circle each other while he stands in support with the woman he loves. Arguably he also ends up causing the static in their relationship, just by existing, but the truth is that Sasha and Paige were going to have to grow apart and find their own paths at some point. He's the cause, but not the deeper reason.
And he gets to be part of how the two eventually find their way back, too. Late in the film Paige and Tim have a fight, which causes a temporary split between them. It's a moment that causes growth for Paige, as she realizes some things about herself, but in the process it also allows Tim and Sasha a chance to finally bond. With both of them on the outs from Paige, it allows Sasha to see Tim as more than just Paige's partner; she can finally see him as a good guy and a possible friend as well. It's a big moment played subtly in the film without any underlining at all.
That, I think, is the greatest strength about the film: everything it does it handles with nuance. People react and relate to each other through natural chemistry without having to over explain everything. Character move and evolve and have big moments, but the film never plays up the drama or tries to over-emphasize the tension. These are characters that feel like real people, and their reactions are tempered through a true gaze of reality. This isn't a comedy with a heightened tone, it exists in our world with natural rules. And it finds its humor, and honesty, through natural reactions.
The film wasn't a hit when it came out, and even some critics seemed dismissive of it at the time. But the film has warmth, honesty, and heart, which are all too rare commodities in the Hollywood machine. It's the right kind of film to rediscover now, without the pressure of studio release schedules. It's a good film that deserves more attention, a story that really cares about its characters. For a romantic comedy, one about romance and... sister-mance? Sure, we'll go with that. Romance and sister-mance, this film knows what it's doing.