Two people meet cute, dance around their obvious mutual attraction, and get frustrated over petty differences. They overcome obstacles like wrong partners or long distance and finally, after some convoluted misunderstandings, there comes that Magic Moment when they realize their mutual feelings and let themselves fall in love. There's a kiss, and maybe a wedding, The End. Except... what happens next? That's a lot less clear, but a new Netflix rom-com, Happy Anniversary, continues where other movies in the genre end by picking up three years after a couple gets together.
When the movie begins, it's Sam (Ben Schwartz) and Molly's (Noel Wells) third anniversary. When Sam leans in to hug Molly on their bed and wish her a happy anniversary, she drops the announcement that she's "not happy." From there, the film moves back through the couple's many firsts from both their points of view — first date, first vacation, first pet, first fight, you name it. "I miss the person that I met three years ago. That guy was romantic!" Molly says in one scene (while, ironically, sitting on the toilet), and for any long-term couple who've mad it past the honeymoon stage, her sentiment will probably hit a bit too close to home.
It's easy to idealize someone when you don't really know a person, and most romantic comedies focus on that sweet spot of knowing just enough about another human being to crush hard, without having your expectations crushed by the weight of reality. But what happens when you get to know your significant other, truly for better or worse? That's the territory explored by Happy Anniversary, the first film by director Jared Stern. In an interview with Indiewire, Stern revealed that the movie is a semi-autobiographical tale. But the film will likely feel semi-autobiographical to anyone who's ever been in a long-term relationship due to its honesty about the buildup of daily minor irritations leading to full-on blow-ups, and the intimacy of knowing a person so well you can make them smile even while they're furious with you.
With Happy Anniversary, Stern manages to portray the hope and urgency of your typical romantic comedy, but still puncture the idea of love as inevitability or healing balm for any problem. As Sam points out in the film, "It's not called gently reclining in love, it's called falling in love," with all the pain and risk of taking a wild leap into the unknown. After all, Molly and Sam are a couple, but are also individuals living in the world. The pressures they face, together and alone, stack up ,as they do for real-life couples everywhere.
A recent Gallup poll noted that unlike their GenX or Boomer counterparts, Millennials are putting off not just marriage, but relationships of any kind. The answer isn't mysterious, or some genetic mutation passed on to the youth — it's just the fact that relationships are hard. Add in slightly lower social pressures to lock into a relationship or have kids and crank up economic woes, and you have a generation weighing the emotional effort of seeking and maintaining deeper personal connections on top of everything else — and deciding it's not worth it.
As Sam's friend tells him in the movie, "stop punishing yourself — find something simpler!" Most people entering their first serious relationships start to realize why simpler isn't always better, and that fighting for something you've built with another person is often worth the struggle and pain. Like Sam and Molly discover, it's frightening to learn that love isn't just passion and charm, but can be a messy, ugly, struggle. If you love someone, shouldn't that be a good thing?
By going into the downsides of long-term love, Happy Anniversary sets itself apart from the rom-com pack. Deciding to stay in a relationship sometimes means accepting that things won't, or can't change. When Molly bluntly states she's not "happy," it says volumes about American relationship ideals, especially as portrayed in romantic comedies. Happiness is a fleeting state of mind, not a permanent fact of existence. There's nothing a person can earn or take that would, or should, leave them in an eternal state of bliss; that's just not how the human mind works.
Whether Sam and Molly's anniversary will end with them looking forward to their fourth or parting ways remains uncertain, and that's the most honest part of Stein's script. The secret to staying in a relationship is nothing more than choosing to do so, over and over again, each day, and sometimes, that decision isn't an easy as one would hope.