Judge Erich Asperschlager is his own plus-one.
"Sarah…will you marry me?"
Not all comic books are the stuff of beefy superheroes and galactic conflict. Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown has built his career with graphic novels about his relationships and experiences. Brown brings those sensibilities to his first feature film, Save the Date, directed and co-written by Michael Mohan.
Facts of the Case
Cartoonist Sarah (Lizzy Caplan, Party Down) is nervous about moving in with boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend, Garden State), who is bandmates with her sister Beth's (Alison Brie, Community) fiance Andrew (Martin Starr, Freaks and Geeks). When Kevin blindsides Sarah with a surprise public proposal, she dumps him, moves out, and starts dating Jonathan (Mark Webber, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). With Beth and Andrew's wedding approaching, tensions between the sisters mount, and Sarah has to decide what she wants out of the rebound relationship.
There's no shortage of indie movies about the troubled dating life of pretty young adults. At first glance, Save the Date might seem like another entry in an overstuffed genre. What the story lacks in concept it makes up for in authenticity. There are arcs and character development, but more than anything the film is a peek into a turbulent period for five people connected by blood, art, love, and hormones. The story begins and ends in progress, and in between is a slice of life drama that covers the spectrum of relationships—infatuation and commitment, heartbreak and divorce, loneliness and family. Most romantic movies are hamstrung by contrived conflict and easy resolutions. Brown and Mohan understand that real relationships are complicated and they get the details right, in small scenes played by an insanely talented cast.
Caplan anchors the film as a character that could easily have come across as whiny and unsympathetic in less capable hands. Instead of working through interpersonal problems, Sarah detaches herself, using her life as fodder for comic-style art. We don't see enough of her crumbling relationship with Kevin to understand what has changed or why they stayed together for so long, but Arend conveys the pain of their break-up in a few key scenes. In a standard rom-com, Webber's Jonathan would be the pretty boy jock who stands in the way of true love. Here, he's the newcomer, a nice guy whose only fault is not having a history with this group. Brie and Starr (a more likely pairing than you might think) as Beth and Andrew have the kind of mature, committed, and complicated relationship you rarely see in movies. All the characters feel lived-in and relatable. If you've spent any time in the dating scene, you've seen, known, or been one of these people.
The authentic feel of Save the Date extends beyond the characters to the art and music. Too often, characters in movies are "artists" by sheer will of the screenwriter. Nothing they do would be interesting to anyone except the other characters. It's believable that Sarah's drawings—drawn by Jeffrey Brown—merit a gallery show. It's just as easy to imagine Wolfbird packing clubs. The music for the film was written by Hrishikesh Hirway, a.k.a. The One AM Radio. Songs like "Accidents" and "Babies" fill out the world in addition to the soundtrack, which also includes songs by Wilco, Giorgio Mroder, and Class Actress. Music and dialogue are presented on the DVD in a subtly effective 5.1 surround mix that supports the beautifully natural 1.85:1 video transfer. Mohan's direction isn't flashy, but he includes nice visual touches that fit the characters and the story.
For a small indie film, Save the Date comes with a varied and impressive collection of extras:
• Audio commentary with writer-director Michael Mohan: For a recording jerry-rigged by the director in his apartment, this is a fun, conversational track. Mohan bops around with behind-the-scenes info, filmmaking philosophies, tidbits, trivia, and well-deserved praise for his cast.
• Deleted scenes, with and without commentary: (3:32) A few short excised scenes, available with commentary that does a fine job of explaining why they existed in the first place and why they were ultimately cut.
• Outtakes (1:56): Your standard flubbed lines and on-set shenanigans.
• "Accidents" music video (2:19): The best song from the movie gets a proper music video, mixing footage of Hrishikesh Hirway with shots from the film.
• "Making Of Mini-Comic." Instead of your average making-of featurette, Jeffrey Brown contributes this 48-panel comic book interpretation of his experience working on the film.
I'm not sure why pull quotes and online reviews refer to Save the Date as a romantic comedy. While I agree that Mohan and Brown have raised the bar for movies about relationships, to call this a "rom-com" of even the indie variety does the film a disservice. Audiences who go into Save the Date expecting big laughs are likely to miss the film's subtle strengths. This is an effective film built from quiet moments that are at once intimate and universal. There's only one way Save the Date and "rom-com" belong in the same sentence, and that's to say that this film isn't one. It's far better.
Date saved. Not guilty!
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