Earlier this week, I savored two hours in a surprisingly crowded movie theater. So far in 2021, the theaters I’ve visited have been almost empty, but now it looks like vaccinated moviegoers are returning to theaters! And they weren’t there for a big noisy blockbuster — they had come for an indie comedy: Nikole Beckwith’s new film Together Together.

The film follows 26-year-old Anna — played so winningly by a jittery Patti Harrison that I’m hoping to see more of her — on a journey of surrogate motherhood for a 40-something divorcee. His name is Matt and, played by Ed Helms in an endearingly squishy turn, he’s a bit of a control freak… perhaps a hint as to why he’s alone. What begins as an awkward contract develops into an unexpectedly intimate relationship, and (thank goodness!) not the sort you might expect. As Matt hovers and frets and obsesses about the baby within this attractive stranger’s womb, and as Anna struggles to draw healthy boundaries for their relationship, we see a friendship bloom quite unlike anything we’ve seen in a movie before.

It’s as tough to describe Matt’s relationship with Anna as it is to pick a color for his child’s nursery.

Matt is a character with an alarming lack of boundaries for at least half of the movie, and Helms makes that lack of social grace uncomfortable in a way that will remind many of us of his character on The Office. (Matt is, at times, just a bit too sit-commy in his obliviousness.) But Helms finds enough depth in Matt’s longing to be a father to make his weaknesses ultimately endearing. I just wish I understood the character more. He avoids answering a lot of questions about his past, and he remains something of an enigma to me.

Anna makes a little more sense to me, and the nuances of Harrison’s performance makes her the more fascinating subject, especially when more is demanded of her in the final act. Unfortunately, a few of the supporting characters around her lean, again, into sit-commy territory — particularly the mopey barista named Jules (Julio Torres) who seems to exist on another planet. It wouldn’t have hurt to hear more from Tig Notaro as the platonic couple’s counselor; she finds the right balance of funny but understated.

Co-baristas Anna and Jules (Julio Torres) deal with a customer who has crossed a line.

But despite the film’s stumbles, here’s something I’ll remember about it: About 30 minutes into the film (if I recall correctly), I was startled by a conversation between Matt and Anna about, of all things, Woody Allen’s perverse obsession with much younger women.

The timing was uncanny. I had only just wrapped up a classroom conversation with my film students about Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors — in which the most intimate relationship between a male and a female occurs between Allen’s own 50-something character and a pre-teen girl. The classroom audience seemed predictably conflicted. They found Allen’s Oscar-winning comedy engaging, challenging, and upsetting. They were particularly troubled as they learned about Allen himself, the apparently predatory tendencies that are evident in his own storytelling, and the evidence of his abusive tendencies currently spotlighted in the HBO series Allen vs. Farrow. But the students ended up divided on whether or not we should go on spending time with his films. Some argued that we should not honor him with our attention, much less any dollars required to access his work. Others seemed to think that the work has a lasting value, and that the rewards of considering it and discussing it outweigh any negligible “honor” or dollars that might end up in Allen’s pocket.

Platonic place-setting: Father-to-be Matt and surrogate mother Anna set some boundaries.

So you can imagine my surprise, watching Together Together, to hear Anna’s swift and merciless judgment of Allen’s filmography as unacceptably perverse. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz counts this among the film’s biggest mistakes, calling it “a pointless detour into subtext-as-text” and “the worst thing in the movie by a wide margin because it’s inorganic and discursive—a withering critical monologue that should’ve been saved for the PR tour.” I agree that the scene is a bit on-the-nose. But when it arrived, I experienced a sudden rush of relief. Why relief? If Together Together was going to confront head-on the dangers of such substantial age gaps in romantic relationships, that meant I could relax about where Beckwith was taking Matt and Anna. They weren’t going to end up together together in that way. (If that had happened, it would have felt like a misguided kind of crowd-pleasing aimed at viewers with the poorest judgment.)

Fortunately, Beckwith has much more interesting possibilities in mind, and that’s the saving grace of this film. The conversations between these two are edgy and discomforting enough to keep things interesting, and if you stick with them you will come away with an expanded map of the kinds of stories that are possible at the movies. It’s amusing to watch critics wrestling with how to describe what Matt and Anna are experiencing. Seitz says, “[I]t feels wrong to call them ‘a couple.’ They’re more than friends, less than lovers. Well, not ‘less than,’ because that phrase implies that a romantic relationship is greater than friendship. Then again, is this even a friendship?” I like the way Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson puts it: This film “challenges how we imagine supportive relationships, the boundaries of friendships, and the many shapes love can take.”

How many shapes has love taken in my friendships over half a century? All but a few of my relationships have been platonic, and nearly 25 years into my marriage, many of my closest friendships today are with women — friendships that feel like what I might have known if I’d grown up with sisters. Why are relationships like these such a rarity onscreen? I suspect it’s because of storytellers’ tendencies — and, let’s face it, studio’s tendencies — to want to catch and hold the audience’s attention, and there are few lures more enticing than sex. But imagine how we might cultivate a healthier culture if meaningful, non-amorous relationships were depicted more frequently, and the rewards of such realities more recognizable? (Perhaps some would be freed from ideas as fear-based — and as harmful — as Mike Pence’s beloved “Billy Graham rule”?)

The kind of deep breathing required of Matt and Anna is quite different than that of their pregnant-couple community.

While I’m not urging you to see Together Together on a big screen — it isn’t particularly cinematic, and would play just fine on a small screen — the chemistry between Harrison and Helms warms into a meaningful — even inspiring — relationship, and that’s enough to make it worth your time.

I love it when screenwriters cultivate characters and relationships so unique that I can’t think of relevant comparisons from other films. Tom McCarthy did that with the friendship between the three leads in The Station Agent. Mackenzie Crook did that in his TV series Detectorists. Beckwith’s characters may not come to life for me as fully as McCarthy or Crook’s characters do, but her story held my attention to the end because I really had no idea how it was going to end up. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the film is that the cut to the end credits seemed abrupt, and I was immediately disappointed, wishing to go a little farther with both Ed and Anna, just to learn a little more about how things would play out from there. I suspect the sudden conclusion will end up being a productive disappointment; I’ll keep thinking about what might be next for Matt and Anna for a long time to come.

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