The title of writer/director Marc Meyers’ third feature film is a curious thing. Rather than fixate on one half of a relationship, “How He Fell in Love” instead becomes a much fuller look at how a relationship travels from casual acquaintances into unanticipated territory. With a sharp focus on an evolving relationship between Travis (Matt McGorry), an ambling part-time musician and Ellen, a married yoga studio instructor, Meyers foregoes easy judgment or condemnation to give a full view of a love with consequences.
Skillfully tracking the emotional parabola of their affair, “How He Fell in Love” gives breathing room to each stage of their interactions, beginning with their chance meeting at a wedding. As the two spend time together, casually flirting inside the yoga studio and beyond, their coded parsing of clues and discussions with friends afterwards help widen the scope of their potential romantic involvement. Early on in their friendship, when Travis visits Ellen’s house for a market research survey, Meyers switches to the footage on Travis’ work handheld camera; it’s like an audition tape for a life-altering romance.
McGorry plays Travis as a subdued romantic chameleon, adapting to both Ellen’s full affection and the fleeting attention of old flame Monica (Britne Oldford). His stagnation, both in his music career and his day job, makes the mutual sparks between he and Ellen all the more fulfilling.
As the woman caught between two different kinds of love, it’s Hargreaves who really shines here, conveying Ellen’s confidence to take what she wants. Hargreaves’ best moments find Ellen reveling in her newfound happiness, but acknowledging that this discovery is tinged with an expiration date: Either the fling’s or her marriage’s.
Despite Travis and Ellen’s breezy, walk-and-talk chemistry, Meyers wisely prizes the moments when the two are trading wordless glances, trying to decipher each other’s in turn. In the moments before the two go to bed together for the first time, their silent undressing reveals more about the pair than any portent-filled dialogue could. It’s refreshing to see Meyers trust that natural interaction to carry the story along — despite Travis’ musical aspirations, the film’s score is sparse. As the two settle into a comfortable cycle of illicit meet-ups, Meyers makes sure to keep Ellen’s wedding band in frame, even when she’s not making a point to take it off.
After existing only in theory for much of the film’s first third, the arrival of Ellen’s husband Henry completes the film’s triangle. Mark Blum brings welcome calm to Henry, even as the clues of Travis and Ellen’s relationships begin to seep into his home and social life. As Henry’s skepticism fades into something more certain, Meyers and Blum avoid making him a too-obvious foil to Travis’ youthful reservedness. As all of the main characters openly acknowledge their shortcomings, it keeps their situation from becoming a melodramatic cautionary tale.
“How He Fell in Love” is a distinctly New York story, but the production design balances the familiar Manhattan exteriors with the counterintuitive blank slate whiteness of the couple’s Holiday Inn rendezvous point. From their first encounter, the romance comes from their conversation and emotional connection, rather than any grand gesture. When the two finally decide to switch their preferred venue to somewhere upstate, you can see the colors pop and the drab, nondescript hotel wallpaper give way to vibrant, verdant roadtrip stops.
Ellen’s relationship with the two main men in her life aren’t played against each other as a convenient good-love/bad-love distinction, but one well-timed match cut does mark the difference in her demeanor around her husband and her lover. That complicated juggling also works through Meyers’ observant script, particularly one detail that resurfaces well after it’s introduced, before the audience can realize its significance.
READ MORE: Watch: Romance Blossoms Abroad in ‘Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong’ TrailerBut in the film’s hour of need, after some irreversible character choices, “How He Fell in Love” finally pays off its title by following the stone tossed in the pond rather than the ripples. In light of the finely-balanced story that precedes it, devoting much of the film’s closing quarter-hour to a redemption thread feels misplaced. Still, Travis and Ellen’s final meeting retains the bittersweet hallmarks of their best moments elsewhere. Regardless of who it sets its sights on, “How He Fell in Love” tells a complete tale without being tidy, fitting for a tale representative of love’s fickleness.
“How He Fell in Love” opens in Los Angeles on July 8 and expands to New York on July 15.