If you’d told the average moviegoer back in 2010 that by the end of the decade people would be clamoring for the return of the romantic comedy, there’s a good chance they would’ve laughed in your face. By the late aughts and early 2010s, the rom-com industry was facing a quantity-over-quality crisis, with horrendous films like The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, New Year’s Eve, and Think Like A Man. The already underestimated genre became a full-on cultural punching bag, one that was hilariously lampooned in Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s 2014 satire They Came Together. Yet by the end of the decade, the movie industry saw a massive celebration over the fact that films like Crazy Rich Asians, Love, Simon, and Netflix’s “Summer Of Love” slate had revived the romantic comedy. So what happened?
Rom-coms needed a reset, and they got it by evolving out of the glossy studio form that had dragged them down and back toward the kind of clever, character-driven films that had made them such a hit in the ’90s. The genre went indie and that helped pave the way for its triumphant return. The best example is 2017’s The Big Sick, which I already wrote a whole column about last year. Thanks to its funny, unique love story, it made $42.8 million domestically, earned an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, and served as a precursor for the big rom-com revival of 2018. But it was far from the only movie that brought indie charms and refreshing originality back to a genre that had become far too formulaic.
A lot of early 2010s indie rom-coms coincided with the tail end of the “mumblecore” movement—low-budget films with naturalistic, often improvised dialogue and a focus on the small-scale problems of (usually white) people in their 20s and 30s. Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies (2013) effectively deconstructs the “cool girl” archetype by casting Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as brewery coworkers with potentially more-than-friendly feelings towards each other. A huge favorite of mine is Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister (2011), which stars Mark Duplass as a man who’s lost his way since his brother died; there’s a winningly low-key love story between Duplass and Emily Blunt, but the real key to the film’s success is the sibling relationship between Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, which captures a kind of affectionate adult sisterhood you seldom see onscreen.
As mumblecore forefather Richard Linklater turned his Before series into a trilogy with 2013’s stellar Before Midnight, other indie creators took inspiration from his original walking-and-talking romance, Before Sunrise. Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien starred in Jon Kasdan’s underrated 2012 teen romance The First Time, as a pair of high schoolers who develop a deep connection over the course of a whirlwind few days. Even Chris Evans got in on the indie rom-com action, making his directorial debut with 2015’s Before We Go, in which he plays a New York City busker who winds up spending the night helping a stranded Alice Eve.
Before We Go has its charms, but a stronger Before Sunrise-inspired vehicle is 2014’s Top Five, which Chris Rock wrote, directed, and starred in. He plays a recovering alcoholic comedian trying to rebrand himself as a serious actor. Rosario Dawson, meanwhile, is the New York Times critic writing a profile on him. They spend the day wandering New York City together, moving from swanky press interviews to a trip to his family home, where his friends make a game of listing their top five favorite rappers.
Not everything about the sexual politics of Top Five has aged particularly well, although its commentary on celebrity life still feels sharp. Rock’s character is desperately trying to promote his prestige drama about the Haitian slave rebellion, but all anyone wants to ask him about is his Hammy The Bear franchise, in which he plays a bear cop. Top Five is specifically about the experience of being a black celebrity, which was also fodder for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2014 romantic drama Beyond The Lights. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a successful but desperately unhappy pop star, and marked Prince-Bythewood’s first return to the romance genre since her seminal film Love & Basketball.
That same year, Mbatha-Raw also starred in Amma Asante’s period romance Belle, which felt unique in the way it anchored a classic romantic costume drama around a black woman. On the heels of The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, there’s been a real push toward embracing the universality of racially diverse and culturally specific rom-coms, rather than segmenting them off, as has too often been the case in the past. Top Five, Beyond The Lights, and Belle helped kickstart that shift.
While a lot of the films mentioned so far lean toward the dramatic side of the spectrum, there were lighthearted indie romances as well. Nicole Holofcener’s absolutely lovely Enough Said (2013) casts Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini against type in a sweet love story about divorcees. Though it hinges on a rom-com contrivance—Louis-Dreyfus starts dating Gandolfini while inadvertently befriending his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who won’t stop talking about how terrible her husband was—Enough Said is so thoughtful and character-driven that it doesn’t lose its emotionality along the way. Most importantly, it recognizes that casting rom-com leads for their charisma, chemistry, and comedic timing is much more important than casting for movie-star good looks.
All the best indie rom-com qualities converge in two of the decade’s strongest offerings, Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. Headland started writing 2015’s Sleeping With Other People after finding herself in a depression following the release of her underappreciated 2012 dark comedy Bachelorette. Realizing she’d inadvertently drafted a romantic comedy, Headland leaned into making her film a 21st-century update on When Harry Met Sally, one that also explores sex addiction and toxic relationships.
Like Harry and Sally, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) first meet in college but don’t become friends until later into adulthood. (They do, however, take each other’s virginities.) Headland’s future Russian Doll co-creator Natasha Lyonne is on hand as the best friend who delivers a big speech about how men and women can’t just be friends. There’s even a how-to on vaginal masturbation that plays as a riff on Meg Ryan’s infamous orgasm diner scene.
Headland’s goal was to make her film frank and believable, even as it indulges in some rom-com fantasy, which is the secret to When Harry Met Sally’s success as well. Sleeping With Other People masterfully updates the rom-com two-hander format, while 2014’s Obvious Child follows the Bridget Jones formula in which there’s one main protagonist whose love story is part of a bigger portrait of their life. In this case, struggling stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) attempts to get over a bad breakup by having a fling with clean-cut business professional Max (Jake Lacy). When she finds herself pregnant, she decides to get an abortion even as she also starts to fall for Max.
Obvious Child is a film about the experience of having an abortion that doesn’t hinge on the question of whether or not to have one, which makes it feel quietly revolutionary. Robespierre wrote it in response to a slate of films like Juno, Knocked Up, and Waitress, which centered on women going through with unplanned pregnancies. She wanted to write about a different experience, one in which a woman gets an abortion without any shame or regret. The result is a funny, emotionally complex coming-of-age story that’s also an incredibly sweet romantic comedy.
Obvious Child is the perfect example of how rom-coms have long been a haven for multifaceted stories about women’s lives. That idea was taken even further in another big trend of the 2010s: the rise of the rom-com TV show. As studio rom-coms struggled on the big screen, the genre found a new home on the small one in critically acclaimed series like Jane The Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Mindy Project, and Younger (not to mention a slate of canceled projects like the gone-too-soon Selfie). These shows turned classic will they/won’t they dynamics into their raison d’être, while also telling stories about women that extended far beyond just their love lives, tackling topics ranging from career and parenthood to mental illness, faith, race, ageism, the immigrant experience, female friendship, and so much more.
And yet the biggest shift that got us to the current rom-com renaissance didn’t happen to the genre specifically; it happened to culture in general. The 2010s saw the emergence of a new wave of feminism and feminist pop culture analysis, which pushed back on the idea that things that are feminine, colorful, and lighthearted are inherently less valuable than things that are gritty and hyper-masculine. This increasingly intersectional perspective fed into a critique of problems inherent to the rom-com genre, like sexist tropes and a lack of diversity. But it also pointed out that the worst rom-coms are too often held against the genre as a whole in a way that doesn’t happen with other types of films. That shift paved the way for the rom-com to return in unapologetic form. This year’s meta parody Isn’t It Romantic lightly pokes fun at romantic comedies while celebrating their strengths even more so.
Though the indie rom-coms of the 2010s were seen by far fewer people than their studio counterparts had been, they helped remind cinephiles of the best of what the genre could do. They kept the spirit of the romantic comedy alive, even as its absence from the multiplexes made audiences nostalgic for what they’d once taken for granted. (The 2015 Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck was one of the decade’s earliest examples of a studio rom-com reclaiming some critical respect.) If there’s one thing the rom-com rollercoaster of the 2010s proved, it’s that the romantic comedy will always survive—even if it has to transform itself along the way.
Next time: Bundle up for the cozy charms of While You Were Sleeping.