The Summer of Platonic Love at the Movies

The Summer of Platonic Love at the Movies

When “Unchained Melody,” also known as the music from the pottery wheel scene in “Ghost,” shows up in a movie, it’s clearly meant to evoke romance.

In the teen high school comedy “Booksmart,” a bubblegum-pop cover plays when Molly takes her bestie, Amy, to the airport to leave for a gap year. Having a crush is still part of the movie’s angsty teen equation, but the song choice signals something new: that deep friendship isn’t a fallback but a relationship as important as romance. It’s a recognition that feels long overdue.

According to the Census Bureau, the number of unmarried Americans 18 and older has risen to 45 percent, meaning there are more single people now than ever before. And more American adults today are valuing close friendships and career over marriage.

Some of this summer’s most talked-about films, like Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” are starting to catch up to the reality of these demographic shifts, knocking romantic fulfillment down from its pedestal and exploring the richness of platonic pairings. Big-budget studio movies like “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and indies like “The Farewell” hinge on the close bonds of their main characters and have performed well at the box office despite the absence of a dominant romantic story line.

Well, there is a romance in “Once Upon a Time,” but it feels like an afterthought. The chemistry-deficient marriage between actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and an Italian movie star emerges during the last 30 minutes of the movie, perhaps to heighten the tension of the final fight scene and provide some not-too-subtle proof that Rick Dalton is as heterosexual as they come. While there’s sexual tension between Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and one of Charles Manson’s devotees (Margaret Qualley), the suave moccasin-wearing Cliff rebuffs her without hesitation. The tender moments of friendship between Rick and Cliff are easy to miss in a movie doused in Tarantino’s signature bravado.

Rick, a self-loathing actor with an alcohol problem, describes Cliff as “more than a brother and a little less than a wife,” and he affectionately pats Cliff on the shoulder when they say goodbye. Rick doesn’t have the hypermasculine swagger you’d expect from a leading man in the 1960s, though. And despite their staunchly masculine roles in Hollywood — as the heavy and the stuntman “you can do anything to” — neither character pigeonholes himself into a stereotypical kind of manhood. In their first scene together, Rick actually cries on Cliff’s shoulder about the state of his career after a meeting with his agent. Cliff tells him to stop crying “in front of the Mexicans,” but he also consoles him, too.

Referring to the valet drivers this way, and barely showing their faces onscreen, is just one example of how the film is often stubbornly tone-deaf and reduces people of color to background noise. So while Tarantino veers away from expected masculine stereotypes, he largely fails to apply this same inventiveness to any other characters who aren’t a white man or a dog.

Then there’s “Late Night,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, about deep friendship in the workplace. It’s the story of how two opposites eventually become work wives. Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) is a harsh-tongued late night television host facing cancellation; the new writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script), is charged with injecting some life into the show to save it.

The journey of their boss-employee relationship is bumpy in all the familiar rom-com ways: They don’t hit it off at first until they do. (Molly pitches an edgy joke about reproductive rights that Katherine likes.) Something breaks them apart: Katherine coldly fires Molly when she refuses to stay late for the umpteenth night in a row. After time apart, they reunite and both end up in a better place as a result: They revive Katherine’s show thanks to a utopian vision of feminist inclusivity in the writers’ room. “Late Night” is ultimately a tale of mutual mentorship that feels like the platonic equivalent of falling in love.

Molly does have a love interest, but that story line feels like a miss in an otherwise sharp script. It’s a waste of screen time, a sub-sub plot,” as one review put it, that adds unnecessary depth to a tangential character (Hugh Dancy), as if to say “Hey, white guys, here’s the hot guy you can relate to in this feminist wish fulfillment movie you might be uncomfortable watching!” Even though only a couple scenes feature Molly’s teenage cousin, Pavarti (Jia Patel), it’s remarkable that Kaling both included this kind of intergenerational relationship and that Ganatra didn’t leave it on the cutting-room floor. Pavarti is the closest thing Molly has to a bestie, and it’s refreshing to see a self-aware Indian-American teen girl being taken seriously.

The power of a grandmother’s love has probably never been as thoughtfully rendered on the big screen as in this family drama starring Awkwafina as Billi and Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother, Nai Nai. To spare Nai Nai the pain of knowing she has only a few months to live, her family concocts a wedding in her Chinese hometown. This allows the family to say goodbye one last time without giving Nai Nai a reason to suspect something.

Scenes of this Chinese and Chinese-American family eating, laughing, arguing and lovingly maintaining this charade fill frame after frame, providing visual delight. For Billi, raised in America, Nai Nai is the person who most embodies her tenuous link to China and who, unlike her parents, truly gets her. Naturally Nai Nai is a doting grandmother (noting affectionately that Billi’s “little round butt hasn’t changed at all”), but she also functions as a chatty girlfriend. In a beautiful two-shot close-up, Nai Nai gossips with Billi about her grandson’s sheepish bride: “That girl is not affectionate. Nothing like our family,” she says, adding, “Makes me wonder what they do in the bedroom.”

As the Times critic Wesley Morris wrote, the “romantic comedy is the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people — no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels — figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being.” Stories about deep friendship have a clear place in the genre. Maybe the rom-com isn’t dead, just stale. It’s clear that love stories that aren’t romantic can be as cathartic onscreen as dramatic love affairs. Acknowledging that truth might just be the start of a rom-com refresh.

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