Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 so far that we didn’t review.
The streaming content boom has resulted in multiple courses of romantic comedy comfort food, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the goals of these projects, ranging from evoking ’80s John Hughes to evoking ’90s Meg Ryan, look even more modest when compared to a movie as confident and idiosyncratic as Straight Up. James Sweeney’s film has its own modesties—a 95-minute running time, relatively few characters, those characters’ abiding lack of horniness—as well as its own throwback charms, in the form of neo-screwball dialogue and a squarish 1.33 aspect ratio. Yet Straight Up (which received a brief pre-pandemic theatrical release before landing on Netflix) is funnier, fresher, and more authentically yearning than many of the rom-coms that have found success on streaming platforms over the past few years.
In addition to writing and directing, Sweeney also stars in the film as Todd, smart and fastidious twentysomething who has been presumed gay for most of his life (a “Kinsey 6,” in the parlance of one running gag). Is he, though? After failing to develop any meaningful romantic or sexual relationships, Todd has started to wonder if he’s just been conforming to expectations based on his nontraditional masculinity and general squeamishness, including a case of genuine OCD. Though his only two friends assure him that he couldn’t be anything else but homosexual, Todd tentatively branches out after a library meet-cute with struggling actress Rory (Katie Findlay), whose name allows them to bond over a mutual love of Gilmore Girls. Rory, who shares Todd’s intelligence and one-ups his sometimes-mordant sense of humor, has her own reasons for feeling comfortable with a relationship that de-prioritizes physical affection in favor of talk, talk, talk.
Sweeney and Findlay’s motormouthed, interlocking dialogue makes a convincing case that maybe chat could be better than sex. Their warp-speed treatment of conversational standbys—including personal backstories, strange personal preferences, and petty arguments (including a particularly vigorous debate about the Alanis Morrissette song “Ironic”)—are written with flair and, perhaps more crucially, perfectly performed. Findlay and Sweeney show Todd and Rory lighting up each other’s brains, turning exchanges of information and opinions into marathon platonic make-out sessions.
Sweeney frames these conversations with attention to symmetry in both the images themselves and how they’re juxtaposed, whether through cuts, split-screens, ping-ponging whip-pans, or the occasional split-diopter shot. The exacting compositions can be fussy, but here, form follows function: Todd and Rory try to create a tidy, bespoke space for themselves as an unconventional couple, only to be thwarted by unavoidable emotional messiness. The thin supporting characters wind up helping to capture the ebb and flow of a possible soulmate relationship, too, as people outside Todd and Rory’s boxes-within-boxes dynamic seem genial at first, then aggressively superficial, then maybe not so bad after all.
Sometimes Straight Up feels like a millennial answer to the more romantic work of slacker-friendly Gen-X auteurs like Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith. Both Before Sunrise and Chasing Amy spring to mind for their ability to drive their stories with the intoxicating pull of pure conversation, a quality Sweeney updates for characters who are both steeped in and repulsed by social-media oversharing. At the same time, Sweeney doesn’t feel overly indebted to those filmmakers, nor to the visual precision of Wes Anderson, even when Todd or Rory are positioned dead-center in a frame. The characters’ questions about love, sexuality, and their accompanying flexibilities (or lack thereof) are so provocatively free of easy answers that Straight Up develops from a rare delight to a rarer achievement: a romantic comedy that’s genuinely unpredictable.