“Plus One pulls back the curtain on romance to present what a ‘perfect ending’ actually looks like.”
Title: Plus One (2019)
Directors: Jeff Chan 👨🏻🇺🇸 and Andrew Rhymer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Jeff Chan 👨🏻🇺🇸 and Andrew Rhymer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
From first-time feature filmmakers Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, Plus One impresses with an effortless ability to relate modern romance to the silver screen. Despite a plot summary that feels comfortably worn-in, like a pair of house slippers you’ve owned since the similarly matrimonial Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the lessons and takeaways of Plus One actually do feel fresh. That payoff doesn’t come until much later, however.
The film’s general sense of déjà vu comes from its reliance on a tropey setup. Two longtime friends agree to spend an extended amount of time together, in this case, agreeing to be each other’s plus ones for a year’s worth of weddings. Naturally, this leads to sexual tension and confessions of love, a predictable result that takes the better part of an hour to build up to.
This long intro by no means makes for unpleasant viewing. Rather, following the foul-mouthed Alice (Maya Erskine), who constantly takes the piss out of her longtime friend Ben (Jack Quaid) and everyone else around her, comes with its own set of wry amusements. Both leads can grate at times, however, with Alice bouncing between playful ribbing and outright meanness, delivered with the cutesy exuberance of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl while Ben feels about as likable as his job would indicate: He’s the 20-something year old vice president of a tech startup who comes off as smug, aloof, and immature.
Detractions aside, the third act changes gears and jolts into exciting territory. While other romantic comedies might roll the credits upon Alice and Ben admitting their feelings towards each other, Plus One pushes past the fairytale ending to get to the meat of things. After the honeymoon phase is over, where does that leave a new couple? In fact, what does “love” mean, and does Hollywood’s spoon-fed version even exist?
Chan and Rhymer tackle these skeptical questions with aplomb, using realism over any orchestral swells or soft focus to earn its viewers’ emotional investment. The final conclusions feel timely and almost painfully resonant. Plus One pulls back the curtain on romance to present what a “perfect ending” actually looks like.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Since Plus One revolves around love and almost solely takes place during weddings, feminism takes a backseat. Luckily, Alice is an independent woman who lives alone and who holds a smattering of female relationships that surface throughout the film.
In particular, we see a realistic portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, one that is simultaneously antagonistic and loving—not unlike the dynamic found within Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). Alice’s mother Angela (Rosalind Chao) has clearly bequeathed some vexing personality traits, as the two share a love of harping on other people. The way their similarities can push each other’s buttons feels wholly recognizable.
Alice also shares a short scene with her younger sister who is about to be married, and their brief exchange reveals some lighthearted sibling rivalry. Beyond that, however, Alice’s storylines are tied up in the main relationship between her and Ben (and to a lesser extent, with her ex-boyfriend).
Plus One stands out thanks to the deft way it grounds romance with pragmatism. But a second factor includes its centering of an interracial relationship. Alice is played by Erskine, who is mixed-race Japanese and white. It’s wonderful to watch a film casually showcase something that happens so often in real life, but that seems to get short shrift in media—a dearth that’s just now being addressed by newer rom-coms like The Incredible Jessica James (2017), The Holiday Calendar (2018), or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018).
Onscreen, Alice belongs to a Japanese American family of the Moris. Although her parents and sister are cast with actors of Chinese and Korean backgrounds, it feels fine since they’re all East Asian American actors playing East Asian American roles. The topic of casting only starts to feel problematic to me when treating foreign vs diaspora Asians like they’re interchangeable. For example, as much as I love Canadian actor Simu Liu, I had to cringe at his terrible fake accent in Fresh Off the Boat’s “Under the Taipei Sun” (Season 5, Episode 21) where he unconvincingly plays a Taiwanese native.
The only murmur of “authenticity” issues I would flag is the way Alice is posited as fully Asian. Whether it’s through Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Andrew Koji of Cinemax’s Warrior, or Charles Melton in the upcoming The Sun is Also a Star (2019), mixed-race actors with European or British ancestry are increasingly playing lead Asian roles.
This wouldn’t be a problem whatsoever if the reverse occurred just as often—if we saw Asian actors playing mixed-race roles. But we generally don’t, so it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the clear preference in Hollywood for whiteness, even among its non-white characters.
For now, however, I’m still on Team Any-Representation-Is-Better-Than-None. The only reason I docked Plus One in this category is due to the colorblindness of Alice’s role, where no sense of Japanese culture makes it into her narrative. I loved seeing the majority-Asian wedding scene that her family hosts, but diverse casting is only half the battle. From the audience’s perspective, we’re still missing the bonus effects that diverse storytelling actually gives us—new backstories and character development, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.
A same-sex couple appears in the film, played by Alex Anfanger and Brandon Kyle Goodman in their roles as Derrick and Brett, respectively. While the inclusion is welcome, especially in its more intersectional casting of Goodman who is Black, the couple takes up minimal narrative space and falls pretty hard into flamboyant “sassy gay friend” stereotype whose only function is to push Alice and Ben together.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Plus One might be billed as a rom-com, but it foregoes the glossy sheen normally attributed to the genre for a stripped down slice of reality pie. For this reason, I found it legions more affecting—and validating, too, about the doubts and concerns that so many millennials have about selecting a partner to share their foreseeable futures with.
And I’m not the only person who let Plus One get under their skin. After its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Chan and Rhymer’s debut snagged the Narrative Audience Award which speaks to the overall likability, and relatability, of this film. Others can catch the movie when it gets released in U.S. theaters on June 14.