You’ve probably seen “In a Relationship” before — hell, if you’re over 25, you’ve probably lived it. But what Sam Boyd’s tender and winning debut feature lacks in originality and ambition, it makes up for in honesty and charm.
Yet another of those movies about beautiful millennials having sex with each other while trying to sort out How We Love Now, Boyd’s film retreads familiar territory that people like Drake Doremus and the Duplass brothers might seem to have already farmed dry. A white boy with bad hair. A button-nosed girl with bad taste. A lot of navel-gazing commentary about hook-up culture, the rules of the game, and how they’ve changed for a generation in which constant connection hasn’t brought everybody closer. Some funny references. Too many synths. Even the best of these stories — even the ones that might reflect your own experience a tiny bit too well — have a way of making you wish that you’d never have to sit through one of these things again.
Watchable at its worst and irresistible at its best, “In a Relationship” is a solid reminder of why we keep coming back for more (and of what we hope to see when we do). Based on Boyd’s 2015 short of the same name, the film begins with a very basic premise: Owen (Michael Angarano) and Hallie (Emma Roberts) are marginally employed Angelenos who’ve been dating for a long time — or at least whatever constitutes “a long time” for people in their mid-20s. Long enough that they can’t go to a party without fighting and can’t have sex without laughing. She wants to move in and start a life together; he misses the rush of something new, and the freedom to masturbate in his apartment. She’s done playing the field, and he still thinks the grass is always greener. Only one of them is right.
Boyd’s balanced four-hander introduces two other characters as natural foils for his first couple. Matt (a super endearing Patrick Gibson) is Owen’s best friend, a stunted Anthony Michael Hall type who still lives with his parents and sleeps in his childhood bed. Willa (Dree Hemingway) is Hallie’s cousin, a gorgeous blonde grad student who looks like she could eat a man-child like Matt alive.
Their unlikely flirtation provides most of the movie’s sweetness, beginning under Fourth of July fireworks before segueing to a first kiss in the back seat of an Uber that’s decked out like a dance club. Willa always wraps her hands around the back of Matt’s head when they make out, asking us to trust her attraction before we believe it (fresh off the wonderful “Love After Love,” Hemingway acts with her whole body, and is seemingly incapable of a false note). She tells Matt that they shouldn’t sleep together yet. His adorable, puppy dog reply: “I’m just happy to be here.” One relationship blossoms as the other withers away.
Although, it’s not all sunshine and roses with the new couple, either. Willa shares Owen’s commitment issues, as well as his frustrating inability to justify them. As Angarano succinctly put it during a Q&A following the film’s premiere: “This is the story of people needing what they think they want, wanting what they think they need, and not being able to tell the difference.” It’s very rare that a critic feels compelled to quote a post-screening Q&A for any reason, but full credit to Boyd for making sure that his actors understood their roles from the inside out — it shows in every member of this small cast, to the point where artificial or clumsily plotted bits stick out like a sore thumb (brace for a prime example of Chekhov’s iPhone password).
“In a Relationship” isn’t breaking any new ground here, but movies like this require a certain degree of recognition in order to work. What matters is that we believe in the fundamental truths of these characters, that we enjoy watching them fumble towards better ones, and that we don’t want to strangle them in the process — Owen crosses the line, petulant and entitled to the love of someone he takes for granted — but the fact of the matter is that some people haven’t been miserable enough to be happy. Boyd zeroes in on that unfortunate reality, making sure that it’s always percolating just beneath the film’s Day-Glo cinematography and its hyper-referential sense of humor.
Punchlines, none of them too forced and many of them pretty funny, range from Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning O.J. Simpson documentary to Dashboard Confessional, Boyd’s script making it impossible to forget when the movie was made, or for whom. Without belaboring the point, “In a Relationship” embraces specific cultural touchstones in order to cast relief on the timelessness of its story. In some respects, the film’s brief moment is already the stuff of memory: Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theater is used as a major location, but the scandalized non-profit has already shuttered since Boyd shot there last summer. It’s not much of a silver lining, but Cinefamily’s posthumous appearance contributes to this film’s low-grade sense of loss, the usual rom-com conventions increasingly subverted by the harsh fact that certain mistakes can’t be undone.
“Everyone creates their own narrative in their head,” Owen discovers, but happiness requires you to accept that the story you’re living is so much better than the feverishly imagined fantasies you keep telling yourself. In its own fun and flimsy way, Boyd’s film acutely traces the moment when a person learns that our stories only become true by sharing them with somebody else. It sucks to be one of the people who has to learn that the hard way — it sucks even worse to be one of the people who loves them.
“In a Relationship” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.