Like many Americans, I’ve been going to the movies a lot lately. I’m engaging in escapism, sure, but what that means to me is looking for hope and comfort in stories when the world feels dark and autumnal. And I found a bit of hope in an unexpected place: the romance subplots of two recent sci-fantastical movies: Arrival and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Both of the men in Fantastic Beasts are shorter than their love interests. The male lead in Arrival is only a bit taller than the heroine. All of them earn the affection of their partners based on their wit, their sweetness, and other inner qualities instead of their pecs or dimple chins or bad guy punching abilities. These stories are subtle, sweet, and exactly what my cold cynic’s heart needed this season.
Arrival is a miracle of a movie. When I first saw the trailers, I thought it'd be a more intelligent Independence Day with a female lead. And I was ALL IN. But it’s so much more than that. It’s nuanced and realistic and both intimate and worldview-changing. The writing is elegant and the plot is a true gem of storytelling, but underneath all the brilliance of the movie, supporting it quietly in a very human way, is the love story.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a remarkable linguist with the right skill set to unravel the mystery of first contact. She works with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try and decode an alien language while fighting against the clock, the political and military systems around her, and her own emotional journey both past and present.
When Louise first meets Ian, he compliments her work but also tries to upstage her a bit. He believes his mathematical and hard scientific questions are more important than her squishy linguistic female science. But he quickly changes his tune. When Louise shows repeatedly that she has the smarts and the strength to make a connection that was never possible before, Ian stops questioning and starts following. He supports her as a colleague and a friend.
They work closely together throughout the story, and he clearly admires her. Their romance is auxiliary but also incredibly important in the movie. It’s subdued but strong, without laugh tracks or high heels or dance numbers. It’s summed up in a simple declaration from Ian at the end: “The most surprising thing in my life wasn't meeting them, it was meeting you.” Cue a hug. Not a kiss. A hug.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is having a hard day. He’s lost several creatures from his magically travel-sized menagerie suitcase, gotten on the wrong side of wizard law, and inadvertently taken a Nomaj (muggle) along for the ride. He gets to know Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein as she repeatedly, and rather politely, tries to arrest him.
The Nomaj, Jacob Kowalski, (Dan Fogler) is a rotund charmer with a mustache, a transatlantic accent, and a heart as sweet as one of the creampuffs he carries in his own suitcase. As Newt drags him along to creature-related hijinks, he meets and immediately grows a deep admiration for Tina’s sister, Queenie (Fine Frenzy).
This is not a romance-centered movie. It’s a family-friendly magical romp and adventure story. But these two relationships deepen in a way that feels real against the fantastic backdrop. Over and over we are shown that what these characters admire about each other is kindness, sympathy, compassion and the bravery that comes not from flashy spells or ego but from standing up for those less powerful than yourself.
Queenie, a blonde bombshell with natural Legilimency abilities, sees right into the heart of Mr. Kowalski and finds him extraordinary, despite his insistence to the contrary. Her clear, sweet and open expressions of regard have no trace of any artiface, catty schemes or thinly veiled lust that are often present when tall gorgeous side characters enter a scene in their undergarments.
And it’s not funny. Queenie and Jacob’s romance is entertaining, but its not a punchline. It’s a sweet counterpart to the darkness of other characters who are twisting affection, friendship and power to sinister ends.
The plot is complex and the movie is beautiful, but what I found refreshing is the way the characters are, you know, not awful to each other. From awkward social situations to battles of life and death, these four characters support and help each other, even when they don’t have to.
Perhaps this shouldn't have blown my mind, but this sort of love story is not what I associate with genre or mainstream cinema. In fact it’s not common in our culture at all, which is why I find it hopeful to see in such big and well-attended films.
These love stories culminate in a hug or a sweet face-cradling or maybe a brief and bittersweet kiss. This is a far cry from a female model in short shorts running across a field to be passionately tongued by a man who has just saved the world through a combination of upper body strength and explosions. Just like our grandmas always told us, it’s what is inside that counts!
Well. Sort of. The men might be smaller, sweeter, and more intellectual than many heroes, but the woman are still all terribly thin and attractive. Still, everyone gets to be smart and kind and important in their stories. The women all initiate the romantic interactions too.
The presence of these more authentic (though still white, and young, and heterosexual) relationships makes me think that as a culture we might be moving towards a more nuanced understanding of relationships. It may not be the feminist romance of my dreams, but it’s nice. It’s refreshing. It’s hopeful. And we all need a bit of hopeful right now.