The power imbalance is there from the start: Mark (Ben Rosenfield) goes googly-eyed at the sight of his old college acquaintance Mary (Hayley Law), who is so busy fussing with her own dramas that she can’t quite place the guy at the convenience store who’s staring at her. It’s a re-meet-cute that sets off Hannah Marks’ sophomore directorial outing, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” as Mary not only remembers Mark, but soon ensnares him in said dramas, channeling that tricky power imbalance into something like actual intimacy. Ain’t love grand?
In Marks’ world it is, at least for a while. The actress and filmmaker’s first directorial outing, “After Everything,” similarly explored a young couple in the throes of both a big love and a big problem, and Marks’ keen eye for amusing relationship dramas continues apace in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” with a few uncomfortable caveats. Marks’ love stories strike a delicate balance; they are always funny, but never at the cost of actual human empathy. Her young lovers are, like Marks herself, young, but their experiences are never treated as anything less than important and relatable. That’s rare, and so is Marks’ ability to find humor and honesty in even the small moments. Less successful are the bigger swings, and “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” makes plenty of these.
After their rapid reacquaintance — Marks takes us through great swaths of Mark and Mary’s relationship before the opening credits are even complete — the couple decides to do something nuts: Get married. They’re crazy about each other, and their differences only seem to make things better. Mary is a big thinker, a major feminist, with a packed social life (she’s in a band that is constantly changing names, all of them hilarious) and a busy work schedule (she does voiceover work and dabbles as a “sexy maid”), while Mark is a bit more low-key, though he certainly tries to be impressive (he went to two women’s marches!).
Marks’ choice to plunge into Mark and Mary as an established couple robs the film of some emotional heft, especially once she gets to the real heart of the matter. Mark is moony over Mary, but as she tells her pals (a hilarious Odessa A’zion and a charming Sofia Bryant), being married makes Mary feel old in ways she didn’t expect. And once Lana (A’zion) and Tori (Bryant) remind Mary just how young she is, the impulsive Mary spins out some wild lines of thinking, none of which seem to actually relate to the state of her marriage. It’s all so very theoretical, and that’s where the film — and the relationship at its heart — starts to make some big mistakes.
In short, just a few months into her union with a man she’s crazy about, a freaked-out Mary has an idea: They will open up their marriage! Mark is not exactly thrilled about the idea, but Mary pulls the strings, so off they go. In the film’s press notes, Marks notes that she’s not a practitioner of “ethical non-monogamy,” nor does she ever expect to be, but she knows many people who are, leaving her eager to make a film about this world that can fit alongside other classic rom-coms. It’s a valid concept and a good idea, but Marks’ lack of lived experience shows at every turn (and that’s a point noted and written by someone who, like Marks, is not part of this world and does not expect to be).
As Mark and Mary try on polyamory, their predicament also makes for a canny stand-in for all sorts of relationship pitfalls and problems. Their earliest experiences are bad, sexy, silly, funny, snappy, and weird, and Marks mines them for some very relatable emotions. That doesn’t do much for the polyamory aspect, which comes to feel like just another random problem thrown into the mix of an otherwise standard-issue relationship. Soon, the couple is engaging in a series of oneupmanships that mostly feel engineered to ruin their lives, from having a threesome with a close friend to bringing back random dates to their marital bed.
While Marks’ handle on the polyamorous aspects of her story are tenuous at best, she still excels at finding the texture of small moments. A scene involving Mark and Mary and their four best friends attempting to split a check is as raw and funny as anything in the film. And Marks’ handle on sex scenes — of which there are many — is funny and sexy, all bolstered by snappy editing that’s both funny and hot. “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” delivers on the promise of at least part of its plot line: it’s silly and sexy, even if it struggles with the polyamory.
Mostly, it seems that Mark and Mary’s choices can simply be chalked up to their youth and immaturity, and how even people capable of making adult decisions (like getting married, or maybe even having a kid of their own) are still prone to doing dumb stuff, especially when peer pressure is involved. For a film ostensibly about sex, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” doesn’t seem to be much about actual desire; its compulsions are rooted in the pressures, expectations, and general idiocy of youth. That, at least, feels real.
“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition section of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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