Indie Rom-Coms Now Have a Formula And That’s a Dangerous Thing

By  · Published on December 18th, 2012

It’s nothing new to say that the term “independent filmmaking” has come to no longer reference the actual practice of making films outside the studio system, and alerts more directly to an aesthetic of hipness. That the cute-and-quirky consecutive multi-Oscar nominees Little Miss Sunshine and Juno were similarly marketed by Fox Searchlight as “independent films” despite the fact that the former was actually produced independently and the latter was funded by studio dollars, effectively put the nail in the coffin for actual independent filmmaking to have any meaningful visibility.

Meanwhile, first-time directors who make their name at Sundance like Marc Webb, Doug Liman, and Seth Gordon quickly reveal themselves to be aspiring directors-for-hire rather than anti-Hollywood renegades. Tom DiCillo, Hal Hartley, and Jim Jarmusch seem ever more like naïve, idealist relics each passing year.

It’s clear what the blurring of the lines between independence and studio filmmaking has meant for the mainstream: as my friend and colleague Josh Coonrod pointed out last week, it renders “platform release” synonymous with “independent,” it means that movies featuring Bradley Cooper and Bruce Willis are the top competitors at the “Independent” Spirit Awards (see the John Cassavetes Award for actual independents), and it means that Quentin Tarantino is, for some reason, still considered an independent filmmaker. American independent filmmaking has lost its ideological reason for being.

But when it comes to films that are actually independently financed – films for whom the moniker is less an appeal toward cultural capital and more an accurate description of the economic restraints of off-the-grid productions – the repercussions of blurring the indie/studio binary are less clear. However, when taking this year’s independent romantic comedy output into consideration, the future isn’t so much bright as it is a reflection.

This weekend, Michael Mohan’s debut feature Save the Date opened on two screens after a brief iTunes run. The film stars a veritable who’s who of recognizable late-20s/early-30s sitcom stars and character actors, including Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Alison Brie, and Joan from Mad Men’s husband who is apparently not Booger from the Revenge of the Nerds films. The film is, to put it succinctly, just fine. There’s some decent character development, believable chemistry, and the film’s initial portrayal of the relationship between a commitment-phobic woman and a commitment-desperate man certainly speaks to relevant gender dynamics currently at play amongst cosmopolitans in their last moments of being able to describe themselves as young.

But the film also features copious amounts of indie music, characters with specialized and/or art-related jobs who can somehow afford amazing apartments/houses, cute cartoon interludes, and an ambiguous, abrupt, cut-to-black-style ending. The first three of these tropes are almost stereotypically common to American indies starring the cool kids, but it’s this last point – the abrupt ending – that makes Save the Date feel most surprisingly like the carbon copy indie that it is.

While independent filmmaking has existed in America for pretty much as long as there have been studios, in its highly publicized and much-popularized form in the 1980s and 1990s, American indies offered an alternative to an increasingly homogenous Hollywood output. While many in this group of emerging filmmakers venerated the Hollywood auteurs of the 60s and 70s and were cinephiles well-versed in Hollywood’s classical glory days, the corresponding “movement” saw contemporary Hollywood filmmaking as stifling to creativity, innovation, and opportunity. This is not to say, of course, that there weren’t great Hollywood films or god-awful indies at this time, but American independent filmmaking’s placement of itself (via institutions like Sundance and outlets like IFC) as directly oppositional to the cinematic mainstream provided it tremendous ideological (if not economic) power that spoke to American cinema’s as-yet-unexhausted potential to manifest a deeply personal artistic vision rather than just another industrial product.

But instead of exploring alternatives to narrative cinema outside the expectations engineered within and conditioned by the studio system, indie films are happy picking up the slack where Hollywood has left off. As Hollywood seems hardly interested in making decent romantic comedies, the rom-com has become the most visible genre in narrative, non-subterranean indie filmmaking. 2012 included Celeste and Jesse Forever, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, Friends with Kids, Lola Versus, Liberal Arts, Ruby Sparks, and the period dramedy Hysteria. Many of these movies feature: co-stars of a beloved sitcom, Mark Duplass, Greta Gerwig, or some combination therein; emotional realism tied to quirky comedy and attended with a killer soundtrack; a hip setting, trendy clothes, and characters with notably expendable income no matter their occupation or lack thereof; and some, though not all, feature a deliberately ambiguous and/or abrupt and/or decidedly unhappy ending with avoids Hollywood’s trappings of wrapping everything in a concise, wedding-themed bow.

Few of these are bad films. Some are good. Most are fine. The problem isn’t with quality of output, or the fact that these films make their trade in genre (most above-ground narrative independents do). The problem is repetition and the fact that indie rom-coms are cultivating a litany of generic expectations much in the same fashion of the mainstream filmmaking practices that independent films are ostensibly poised against. If a group of films avoid Hollywood convention in the same way, they often end up creating suffocating conventions all their own.

Thus, a notion has been established as a result of what an independent film of this type is and should be. Eventually, the establishment of a select database of “alternative conventions” limits the chance that insightful, new territory can be explored. And the fact that it’s now difficult to imagine watching an independent film completely devoid of already-recognizable faces creates a self-defeating gatekeeper for non-mainstream cinema.

And that’s exactly what happened with Save the Date: a film that attempts to convey the tumultuous, complicated, lived experience of love and commitment a decade or so before entering middle-age and ends up instead feeling false, easy, generic and (worst of all) unsurprising. Even a narrative maneuver as seemingly “fuck you” unconventional and thematically powerful as an abrupt, ambiguous ending – which Save the Date and Your Sister’s Sister share in the most gimmicky of ways, by deliberately withholding information from audiences that characters know – is reduced to yet another superficial signifier of “indie” rather than an artistic choice used to open up interpretive avenues of meaning.

This is not to say that every movie financed independently must situate itself as ideologically opposed to Hollywood convention. The problem is that indie rom-coms are the clearest example of established indie conventions becoming a substitute for making films that stand in actual opposition to Hollywood convention in terms of style and narrative. After seeing The Five-Year Engagement, I’m not sure if these rom-coms have much to say that the occasional modestly budgeted Hollywood film doesn’t.

But this isn’t to say that there aren’t great films made slightly under the radar in the romantic comedy mode. You only have to look just outside the genre of romantic comedy. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (which is hardly funny), while falling victim to one or two of the annoying tropes of this brand of indie (apparently you can afford an amazing loft apartment in Toronto by driving a rickshaw), takes a sincere, unflinching look at falling out of love without the loathing of Blue Valentine and ambivalently traces the process of falling into love with someone else without the forcedness of Save the Date. And speaking of 90s indie relics, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (which is hardly romantic) takes a seemingly anachronistic, bizarrely wholesome view of college life that results in one of the most effective left-of-field comedies you’ve seen in quite some time.

Both Take This Waltz and Damsels in Distress are unique manifestations of a particular artist’s sensibility and vision. And when you have something to say and declare a personalized statement about it, it’s hard to end up making someone else’s movie.