In a 90-minute whirlwind tour of classic rom-coms, Elizabeth Sankey’s first feature shatters her teenage fantasies with a mature retrospective. She finds mainstream heroines fitting a certain image: white, straight, thin, middle class, educated, able-bodied, often only fulfilled by marriage. But after the white wedding, there is a sense of loss, what comes next?
This confusion fuels an unforgiving yet fair approach, questioning toxic behaviours otherwise accepted in the haze of daydreaming. As these films are often formative, shaping our ideas of beauty and romance, Sankey challenges the ideals that impressionable viewers absorb. In the beloved Bridget Jones’ Diary, for instance, Bridget’s career is almost exclusively played for laughs, and her fixation on weight is unhealthy. Furthermore, the modern male gaze has produced a recurring dynamic between persistent men and Cool Girls™ in There’s Something About Mary and 500 Days of Summer which almost empowers male aggression and demonises female agency. Sankey exposes flaws like these with pointed, well-known examples and punctuates with films that play on these archetypes like Ruby Sparks.
Not all pessimism, the cynical deconstruction turns into a satisfying exploration of what brings us back to these guilty pleasures. Aided by sparkling contributions from the likes of actress Jessica Barden and critic Charlie Lyne, the film celebrates key moments of connection that define the canon. Following the beats of Nora Ephron’s iconic When Harry Met Sally, we begin to understand the journey – conflict, common goals, complementation, opposites attracting, blossoming companionship, concluding with dramatic professions of love. In an intriguing segment, she applies these story beats to recent Oscar nominees and buddy comedies, and how they take advantage of our addiction to this classic arc. Closing on a positive note, the commentary moves into increasingly diverse conversations, championing more recent, more real stories from The Big Sick to Saving Face.
Romantic Comedy very much follows in the footsteps of her work on Lyne’s Beyond Clueless which featured in Sheffield Doc/Fest’s 2014 selection and tackled teen movies in a similar vein. When words fail to do moments of elation justice, the beautifully edited montage is accompanied by dreamy tunes from Sankey’s band Summer Camp. The modern sound to these feelings echoes the synthetic pieces in 2019’s Eighth Grade and Booksmart, and unites the movies over the decades, grounding them in the present.
Though perhaps unoriginal in inspiration, Romantic Comedy is a necessary addition to the watch-list, a compelling education that will help viewers to approach these movies with renewed social awareness. From her place of privilege, Elizabeth Sankey breaks the spell of blind esteem, then restores appreciation with renewed vigour. The outcome is an emotive piece that revels in the many faces of the same, precious human vulnerability that keeps us falling in love over and over again.
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima is a third-year Biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack. She loves TV shows with original concepts, witty writing, and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, and Sense 8. Her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.