The rise of Galentine’s Day (and its gender-neutral counterpart, Palentine’s Day) from a Parks And Recreation episode to a semi-official holiday speaks to two things: The power of a good Mike Schur catchphrase, and the de-centering of romance in 21st-century lives. Instability, disappointment, and a flourishing movement around self-love are leading growing numbers of people to question whether a lifelong, monogamous romantic relationship really is the ultimate goal. There are many types of love, and expecting one person to provide you with all of them, forever, proves disastrous as often as it works. So why prioritize it?
Once you start looking for this dissatisfaction, you see it everywhere: There’s been a steady decline in marriage rates in the U.S. since 1990, and it doesn’t look like that course will reverse any time soon. Trend pieces about roommates co-buying houses and platonic friends making co-parenting arrangements pop up with regularity in financial publications, all of which treat these stories as bemusing oddities rather than the norm for most of human history. (After all, 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs is a very middle-class, white, Western—and very recent—dream.) We won’t presume to analyze all of the forces guiding this shift; this is a pop-culture site, not a sociology lecture. But regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that finding “the one” is not the singular cultural obsession that it was 50, or even 25, years ago. (Remember Julia Roberts, terrified at the prospect of being 28 and unmarried in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding?)
In short, we’re learning to be a little less desperate about finding the person who will complete us—an idea that starts from the assumption that a person is not complete in themselves—and to turn to different types of relationships for emotional support and validation. And, for many people, the most important relationship in their lives, one that persists as romantic partners come and go, is the one they have with their best friend. A best friend knows you better than anyone, will celebrate you in good times and be there for you in bad ones, and always has your best interests at heart. What is that, if not true love?
In the clichéd tropes of a traditional rom-com—particularly the much-maligned ’00s wave—the best friend character is often little more than a placeholder to be shoved aside as soon as a real love interest enters the picture. Rom-com expert and When Romance Met Comedy columnist Caroline Siede notes that Ginnifer Goodwin’s character in 2004’s Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! acts “like she knows she’s the supporting character, not the protagonist.”
Asked for an especially egregious example of sidelining the best friend in a rom-com, Siede says: “The first thing that [springs] to mind [is] How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, which very much has Kathryn Hahn and Annie Parisse as the sad sack singletons without any interiority who are just there to prop up Kate Hudson’s story.” She adds, “Judy Greer basically made a whole career out of playing underdeveloped rom-com best friends, with 27 Dresses being the worst offender in terms of giving her almost nothing to do.”
Enter Bridesmaids, a movie that stirred up huge clouds of media dust upon its release in 2011. These mostly took the form of stories noting, with slight shock and palpable titillation, that an R-rated, women-led comedy was making money at the box office. As Meghan Daum wrote in the L.A. Times in May of that year: “Bridesmaids, the much-hyped girl-raunch comedy… opened way bigger than expected at the box office, thereby proving that women can be just as funny—and, moreover, sell as many tickets—as men.”
But, as The A.V. Club’s Gwen Ihnat noted in her retrospective on the film, while Melissa McCarthy pooping in a sink got all the press, Bridesmaids’ true legacy is in its depiction of female friendship. It’s a classic example of a subgenre heretofore dubbed the “friend-com,” a film that takes the classic structure of a rom-com—two people in love have a conflict, split up, and get back together—and applies it to a story about friendship.
One difference between friend-coms and traditional rom-coms is that the former aren’t usually about finding the BFF of your dreams. In these movies, the journey is more about maintaining existing friendships through changing life circumstances than a meet-cute at the office. They differ from films like Rough Night, where a group of women bond over disposing of a dead body on a bachelorette trip, in that the stakes of a friend-com are not life or death. Similarly, a friend-com may have a romantic subplot, but the tension is not driven by whether or not a character will stay with their love interest in the end. The basic fear in a friend-com? The prospect of not being friends with someone anymore.
Frustrated cupcake entrepreneur Annie (Kristen Wiig) has a love interest in Bridesmaids, in the form of Chris O’Dowd’s aw-shucks cop Nathan. In fact, she has two, as Nathan vies for her affection with the self-absorbed Ted (Jon Hamm). But, in an inverse of the “best friend” role in a romance-driven rom-com, Annie’s beaus are there mostly to fill the void when she loses her true love: her BFF, Lillian (Maya Rudolph).
Lillian has recently gotten engaged to the hapless Doug (Tim Heidecker), and Annie is afraid of being left behind. But despite her mixed feelings about this new chapter in Lillian’s life—Lillian does make Annie her maid of honor, an act of loyalty and recognition of their years of friendship—it’s not Doug who really makes Annie feel threatened. It’s Helen (Rose Byrne), the posh, perfect wife of Doug’s boss.
After Doug and Lillian’s engagement, Helen and Lillian become close. And the wealthy Helen can give Lillian things that Annie, who’s struggling financially as well as emotionally, cannot. Helen and Annie fight like jealous lovers for Lillian’s attention throughout the film, culminating in a blowout fight in which Annie and Lillian essentially break up at an extravagant bridal shower. In the interest of not spoiling an 11-year-old film, we won’t tell you what happens next, but keeping in mind that a friend-com operates under the same rules as a rom-com—what do you think?
Bridesmaids was not the first friend-com: To cite just one example, by the time they actually get to the eponymous high school reunion, in 1997, Romy and Michelle are no longer speaking, and this conflict drives the story going forward. But it did lead the way for a decade where indie producers and Hollywood studios started working friend-com dynamics into their films with increasing regularity, packaging and marketing these films for the same audiences as traditional rom-coms about romantic love.
As a result, most of the films under discussion are about the bonds between cisgender, heterosexual women, although further examination of the Judd Apatow “bromances” of the ’00s could very well drive a theory of the male friend-com. (Superbad, which looks at the coming-of-age story through the lens of a fear of losing childhood friendships, comes to mind.) Later in the 2010s and in the 2020s, LGBTQ protagonists do enter the friend-com stage. But given that the key to the subgenre is exploring platonic love, the “friends to lovers” trope so beloved in fan fiction doesn’t apply here.
One defining characteristic of a best friend is loyalty, and defenders don’t get much fiercer than Dina (Tiffany Haddish), one of the four college friends who reunite in another standout example of the friend-com, 2017’s Girls Trip. In Malcom D. Lee’s sleeper comedy hit, the dynamics between Dina, Ryan (Regina Hall), Sasha (Queen Latifah), and Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) aren’t so different from those between Annie and Lillian in Bridesmaids, but spread out among four characters instead of two.
With wild card Dina added for comic relief (much like Melissa McCarthy’s Megan in Bridesmaids), the film explores tensions about career, money, men, and maturity that strain the “Flossy Posse’s” once-unbreakable bond. The story begins a successful motivational speaker Ryan invites her friends along on a trip to New Orleans, where she’s booked to speak at the Essence Music Festival. Ryan’s public image is flawless and aspirational, but in private, her marriage to Stewart (Mike Colter) is falling apart. The film’s investment in “saving” that relationship is indifferent at best—Stewart is a two-timing cad, and like her friends, Girls Trip is just waiting for Ryan to realize that she’s too good for him. What she really needs is to rediscover that the love of her friends can sustain her as well, or better, than Stewart’s insincere affections.
That’s not to say that the Flossy Posse is simply standing by, a homogenous lump without needs and motivations of their own. The film’s most high-stakes conflicts come from the idea of “success,” and how differing fortunes can make things awkward between friends. In the film, Sasha runs a gossip blog that’s in desperate need of a scoop. And given that Ryan makes a (very good) living dispensing relationship advice, the contrast between Ryan’s public and private lives—privileged information that Sasha has access to as one of Ryan’s closest friends—could be just what Sasha needs. It’s not men, but ambition, that poses an existential threat to the Flossy Posse.
Girls Trip made Haddish a star, and the flurry of movie roles she booked in its wake includes the 2020s friend-com that, for better and for worse (mostly for worse), most closely follows the structure of a conventional rom-com. Like A Boss (2020) co-stars Bridesmaids’ Rose Byrne as Mel, BFF and business partner to Haddish’s Mia. Theirs is an “opposites attract” type of friendship, rooted in their shared childhood as meek foster child and schoolyard protector. But in terms of performance, it works, with Haddish providing broad physical comedy that’s balanced out by Byrne’s straight-woman timidity.
As in Girls Trip, combining money with friendship is the wedge that threatens to drive Mel and Mia apart in Like A Boss. These take the form of disagreements over how to handle the rapid growth of their makeup brand, Mia&Mel, once they receive an investment from cosmetics mogul Claire Luna (Salma Hayek). There’s a twist in this one, however—Claire, a cutthroat girlboss type, plays a role very similar to that of the evil “other woman” in a traditional rom-com. Jealous and manipulative, she’s determined to destroy Mia and Mel’s bond, just as she once sacrificed her own best friend to get ahead in the business world. In a reversal of her role in Bridesmaids, this time around Byrne plays the one being wooed.
To be honest, its friend-com structure, and one very funny moment where Billy Porter dramatically staggers out of a busy lunchtime cafe, are about all there is to recommend Like A Boss. The film is steeped in pop-feminist rhetoric about women supporting women. But it also makes a big deal of underlining the fact that, despite the fact that they own a house together and are the most significant person in each other’s lives, both Mel and Mia are straight, thank you. Such a tumult is raised, in fact, that it ends up coming off as slightly homophobic—which is ironic, given that the film’s director, Miguel Arteta, often makes movies with LGBTQ themes.
A borderline case of the friend-com, 2019’s Booksmart, is much more relaxed about the possibility that the film’s protagonists might be seen as a couple. (They’re not, but they’re not especially worried about it if people think they are.) That film combines coming-of-age tropes with friend-com conflicts: The climactic scene is a screaming fight between graduating high-schoolers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) that’s akin to a rom-com breakup. But a more straightforward example of a friend-com about the friendship between a queer woman and a straight one comes in Am I OK? (2022), a new movie that just premiered a few weeks ago at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The film is directed by a married couple, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne. And given the directors’ shared history, documented in the 2015 documentary Tig, you might expect this to be a “friends to lovers” story. But that wouldn’t be a friend-com. Instead, Am I OK? keeps the relationship between its protagonists, successful marketing executive Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) and aimless artist Lucy (Dakota Johnson), platonic. This is true even after Lucy drunkenly summons the courage to confess to Jane that the reason she’s never shown much interest in dating guys is because she’s attracted to women.
From that point on, Am I OK? runs on two parallel tracks: One charts Lucy’s tentative later-in-life coming out process, including a confusing flirtation with her coworker Brit (Kiersey Clemons). The other is the growing distance between Lucy and Jane as Jane prepares to relocate to London for work, a heartache that’s much more painful for Lucy than any woman who ghosts her on a dating app. In fact, Lucy’s dating life serves a purpose much like Annie’s in Bridesmaids—something to pass the time (and fill screen time) when she and Jane are apart.
Along with Haddish, Johnson often pops up in unconventional rom-coms, whether they be friend-coms or an outlier like 2016’s How To Be Single. In this film, Johnson stars as Alice, a twentysomething paralegal who moves to Manhattan at the beginning of the film and is initiated in the ways of one-night stands and all-night revelry by a party-hearty work friend played by Rebel Wilson. But in the end, the story is about Alice falling in love with herself, and learning to truly enjoy her own company.
Although its self-love theme excludes it from the friend-com category, How To Be Single shares the same values as those films. It posits that romantic love is nice when you can get it, but it shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of other types of relationships in a person’s life. That’s because there are many types of love in this world, and each of them has something valuable to offer. As Johnson says in voiceover at the end of the film, “In a week, or a lifetime, of being ‘alone,’ you may only get one moment… when you’re not tied up in a relationship with anyone: A parent, a pet, a sibling, a friend.”
How To Be Single was panned by many critics upon its release, who critiqued the film for indulging in rom-com tropes while preaching a seemingly oppositional message. But that’s missing the point of the friend-com (or the self-love-com, in that particular case). Reserving a particular type of storyline for a specific style of relationship isolates, and by extension elevates, it as the only type of love that’s worthy of the big-screen treatment. Friendship can be just as much of a rollercoaster as romance: Its betrayals sting no less, and its triumphs are no less meaningful. Building a life around one’s friends is a valid path to happiness, and seeing those choices affirmed on screen is important for those who choose it.