An Appreciation Post for Geraldine Viswanathan and ‘The Broken Hearts Gallery’

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Upon the release of The Broken Hearts Gallery in September, Elevation Pictures kindly gifted me tickets to see it in theatres (safely!). I intended to review the movie as I was excited to watch it, and from what I had seen of it I just knew that I would be rather positive about it. I had assumed early on that this woman-led story with a compelling premise, a fun ensemble, and a proven talent in the lead role that the film would check all the right boxes for a romantic-comedy. 

And it did! The Broken Hearts Gallery is a very sweet, charming, and funny movie. For her directorial debut, Natalie Krinsky sticks the landing in giving audiences a reprieve from the still heavy 2020, and in almost every respect in terms of the screenplay and directing, the film is impeccable. Exactly what the doctor ordered for all who seek the comforts and joys of a truly delightful romantic comedy. However, this piece isn’t a review. Instead, I am turning this into a pure appreciation post. 

As a woman of colour, specifically a Black woman, I often find the stories and genres I gravitate towards rarely reflect myself. Granted, in the past several years I have noticed a significant shift as more people of colour gain more creative and financial freedom in an industry that has long dismissed, marginalised, and discriminated against people of colour and women.

So, as a discerning film lover, I have begun to be extra picky and choosy about what projects I see, because now I have that power. I can now go through an entire year, 52 weeks of movie releases, and not see a single film with a white male lead, and I still would walk away with a fairly good year in regards to film. And, 2020—more than prior years, oddly—has proven that a change has certainly come, not just in the industry overall, but specifically when it comes to mainstream genre films.

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Now turning back to The Broken Hearts Gallery, why was I particularly moved by this film? Well, it’s Geraldine Viswanathan. In 2018 I saw a little teen sex comedy called Blockers directed by Kay Cannon. At face value, it looked like one of the many teen sex comedies we have gotten before, but with teenage girls this time. It was surprisingly nuanced, intelligent, and incredibly empathetic towards horny teenage girls, a result of having a woman at the helm. This was Viswanathan’s Hollywood breakout film. I was both stunned and slack-jawed when I sat in the theatre and saw this brown-skinned young woman play a role that normally would be occupied by a white actress. She wasn’t a side character, the friend of the lead, the school mean girl or any other marginalised role. Nope, she was amongst the leads. She is on the posters. In the trailers. An actual honest to god lead, and she was very, very good.

The last time I can recall seeing a brown-skinned Asian lead in a raunchy comedy was Harold & Kumar, which starred Kal Penn and John Cho, both being the first Asian-American men to lead such a film not once, but thrice. 2018 was actually a pretty big year for Asian leads in comedy in general. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (its sequel was released this year) would come out a few months after Blockers, and became one of the first mainstream teen comedies to star an Asian lead, the wonderful Lana Condor. Crazy Rich Asians was just around the corner and was already receiving immense hype. However, as a brown-skinned woman myself, I am particularly sensitive to noticing and reflecting upon the very few brown-skinned leading ladies we have in this particular genre.

Granted, there is an empire of Black-led romantic-comedies that have filled my soul over the years, but many of those films are decidedly not mainstream and are not nearly as wide-reaching or championed by major movie studios. In this current landscape of romantic-comedies, and the narrower field of teen comedies, the opportunities to mount a film with a $10 million+ budget at a major studio are slim. So slim in fact that it has prompted many pieces on why Black romantic-comedies have disappeared and there is even a considerable uprising of Black girls and women, in particular, being sidelined as the Best Friend archetype of white female leads in this genre. Girls Trip broke records in 2017, but Hollywood has yet to truly capitalise on Black women leading comedies, romantic or otherwise. So, if that is the state of Black-led projects, what does it say about the non-Black brown-skinned communities in Hollywood? Given how easy Hollywood dismisses women of colour in lead comedic roles, Viswanathan was a welcome surprise.

After a string of excellent work such as the personal coming-of-age drama Hala from Minhal Baig, co-starring with Daniel Radcliffe on TNT’s Miracle Workers, holding her own opposite Hugh Jackman in HBO‘s Bad Education, Viswanathan is now headlining her own romantic-comedy.

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The Broken Hearts Gallery briefly had my heart in my throat at the exact moment Suki Waterhouse manifests on screen, and it is clear that she will play some part in causing a rift between Lucy (Viswanathan) and Nick (Dacre Montgomery). For a moment, I lost faith in the film and believed the growth of our bright and dazzling brown lead would come to a screeching halt and she would compare herself to the pretty white woman. Degrade herself, become preoccupied with “losing the guy”, instead, my fears were unsupported. In fact, Waterhouse’s character barely registers with Lucy. And, folks, this is when the waterworks come in. I had become so accustomed to brown-skinned women immediately faltering at the presence of whiteness that I had steeled myself for this potential flaw in the film. Instead, I was treated to a character who is unabashedly herself and who undergoes a character growth that has no relation to whether she “wins” the guy at the end or not.

I firmly believe that if Lucy and Nick did not end up together, that Lucy would be fine. She would be okay because she doesn’t need Nick, she needs herself (and her girls). She trusts herself and she doesn’t perceive her relationship with Nick as an integral part of her existence. That my friends is how I win. I win by watching a beautiful, smart, ambitious and creative woman come to terms with her own personal shortcomings on her own terms. She firmly stands on her own two feet, in fact, Lucy was such a strong character, I’d have been more than receptive to her not being with Nick at the end. I’d actually champion that alternate ending. But, this is a romantic comedy so it was nice to see Lucy get her happy ending.

A character as great as Lucy can only be granted by a capable writer and an immensely talented actress. It takes an actress of considerable talent and presence to hold our attention, to capture our hearts, and to have us feel so immensely invested in the struggles, failings, and victories of our heroine. Lucy is a gift, and hopefully one of many not only for brown-skinned actresses in romantic leading roles but for Viswanathan in particular. Watching Viswanathan embody a role that in a very conceivable reality would have been a starring vehicle for the Zoey Deutch, Emma Roberts, and Dakota Johnson’s of the world was so refreshing.

Sony Pictures Entertainment

As a fan of her work, I can honestly say, she could not have appeared at a better time. I am so glad that I had the chance to walk into a theatre and actually have the privilege to enjoy a moment of pure joy, with a brown-skinned leading lady who I recognise. To watch a film that does not ever pat itself on its back for being inclusive (not only with the lead but the whole ensemble) and instead be a genuinely heartful, emotionally resonant, and funny story. It is amazing how incredible the feeling of feeling seen can do for someone’s cinematic experience. For so long I have been content with relating to characters that don’t look like me, their stories not too dissimilar from my own experiences or exhibiting characteristics that I see within myself. They just don’t look like me. So, when movies like The Broken Hearts Gallery make that one critical shift away from the status quo, the experience I undergo is one that is nearly euphoric. Finally, I see a character that has a personality, quirks, and flaws that I see in myself every day, but this time she and I are not so different. We may not be rocking the exact same shade of Fenty, but I am seen. That is the power of representation.

2020 actually has been a big year for women of colour in romantic and comedic roles. Issa Rae starred in the Black-led romantic drama The Photograph from Stella Meghie, which had its moment in theatres in February. A few months late, The Lovebirds was released on Netflix where she starred opposite Kumail Nanjiani. Mindy Kaling leveraged her considerable power and brought us the new Netflix teen rom-com series Never Have I Ever, starring the newly discovered Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in the leading role. GLOW’s Sunita Mani is the lead in Save Yourself! and showed off her range in Blumhouse horror Evil Eye. Sujata Day produced, wrote, directed, and starred in her comedy-drama Definition Please. Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version has been widely praised. Plus, so much more. Both on TV and film, women of colour have been dominating the romantic/comedic space. Admittedly, this is a narrow scope to look at women of colour in leading roles, however, my point is that for brown-skinned women of colour things are looking up. There are more and more discoveries each day due to a number of significant changes and it’s showing. Change is slow, but it’s change nonetheless.

In a wild wild year like this, with moments of happiness few and far between, I am glad that The Broken Hearts Gallery exists. The film is simply a delightful time with a poignant message at heart of it. It has funny performances from the whole ensemble, and effectively succeeds in what it sets out to do. It is a new favourite of mine and I will certainly be re-watching it over and over again. The film signals that there is hope, and may the future continue to bring forth more fun and feel-good romantic-comedies with brown women doing what they got to do! Also, may Viswanathan continue to shine in all that she does.

The Broken Hearts Gallery Broken is available on VOD & Blu-ray now

by Ferdosa Abdi

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