When I saw the first, clearly targeted for me, Facebook ad for Rom Com Fest it was actually just advertising a screening of Never Been Kissed. After clicking on the link, I was surprised to find an entire festival dedicated to the romantic comedy genre, with beloved films, new features, talks, and other special events. I was truly in love—you may even call this a meet cute.
Although other genres don’t necessarily have their own film festival, I find that you’re more likely to see a horror film, a historical drama, or even a buddy comedy screened at any festival before you’d ever encounter a rom com. That’s one of the reasons why Rom Com Fest founder Miraya Berke wanted to create a space to celebrate the genre. As she points out, “We all need something uplifting to escape to.”
And escape I did, kicking off my festival experience with the 20th anniversary screening of Never Been Kissed, the 1999 high school classic starring Drew Barrymore. The screening was completely sold-out, likely due to the Q&A with Rachel Bloom that followed afterward. The co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend curated the film for the festival, as it is one of her favorite romantic comedies.
Almost immediately into the screening, the audience was reminded that the central romantic plot of the film revolves around Mr. Coulson, a high school teacher who begins to fall for who he believes to be one of his students—but in reality is Chicago Sun-Times undercover reporter Josie Geller, played by Drew Barrymore. Even though nothing explicitly inappropriate happens between Mr. Coulson and Josie when she is undercover, it toes a very problematic line—and doesn’t exactly age well in the “Me Too” era. It’s hard to say what degree of the audience’s collective sighs and “ews” to this dicey plot was genuine outrage—and what could be seen as performative, given that, well, most rom com plots are problematic to some extent—but it was clear that the rose-tinted glasses had come all the way off.
Going into the rest of the festival, I braced for the worst, preparing myself for more problematic moments or jokes that I might have suppressed in my memory in favor of the swoon-worthy third-act twist. After Never Been Kissed, I headed to a late-night screening of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which features an unbelievable cast. (Angela Bassett! Whoopi Goldberg! Regina King! Taye Diggs in his film debut!) Though I would rank this film as the least comedic of the five classic rom coms screened at the festival, it remains an iconic film that flips the idea of May-December relationships on its head by making the woman the older partner in the couple; as an added bonus, it holds up pretty well, all things considered, in the twenty years since its initial release. Sadly, the screening itself didn’t garner a large crowd, perhaps due to the 10 p.m. time slot, or the fact that it was the only classic rom com screening that did not have any type of Q&A that followed afterward.
My Sunday started with a screening of a new romantic comedy, In Reality. Writer, director, and star Ann Lupo was inspired to make this film after completing one year in a doomed-by-the-friend-zone relationship she couldn’t quit. The film takes a hyperbolic ride through the fantasies of finding love, being in love, and even falling out of love. It is experimental in form but that’s what makes it so wildly relatable and funny. Every scene is a recreation of events or thoughts that rushed through her head over the course of her actual relationship. Her honesty and vulnerability make the film shine, and it comes as no surprise that In Reality won the Jury Award for Best Feature Film.
After a whirlwind two days of revisiting old and experiencing new rom com loves, the festival chose to conclude with one of the most popular films in the genre: 10 Things I Hate About You. Personally, I don’t have the film down on my top five—or even top ten—romantic comedies, but I know it is usually number one for most of my friends, so I wasn’t surprised that the screening was packed. Though I have watched it many times, this was my first time seeing 10 Things in a theatre with a full audience, and the collective experience got me to fall head over heels. Hearing iconic lines such as “I like my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack,” and of course, “…but mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all,” whispered collectively in a crowded theatre was an uplifting experience—much like what the festival had set out to curate.
While I loved ending the weekend on this warm and fuzzy note, the thing that stuck with me the most from the festival was the conversation following the perennial problematic fave, Never Been Kissed. Immediately after the screening, Rachel Bloom took it upon herself to acknowledge the complicated layers that surround screening the film in 2019, but she also made sure to emphasize how integral the film was to her during her middle school years. Like Josie “Grosey” Geller, Bloom was the subject of a similar cruel joke in her youth, so for her, it was powerful to see herself as the star of a film; she didn’t think much of the teacher plot line because she didn’t have the luxury to find herself represented in any other films at that time.
Bloom brought up a salient point—it feels unfair to judge these romantic comedies under the harsh scrutiny of 2019 because they were, for a long time, the only option women consistently had at identifying with a protagonist. That said, in an effort to grow and change for the better, we should hold the things we love to the light, to fully analyze, and sometimes even criticize them. It’s exhausting—and frankly, downright insulting—to propose that a woman’s worth will always be tied to her ability to find and keep love. And not only that, but rom coms often suggest that someone must be your one true love or you were wrong, foolish, and inadequate all along.
Yes, there are many, many things wrong with the genre—and thankfully several modern interpretations are working to challenge those issues or reject them altogether—but the romantic comedy has consistently been one of the only genres to feature strong female protagonists who aren’t being chased down by a man wielding a chainsaw or being abused or tortured. As the festival website itself points out:
Routinely dismissed by film critics as a lesser genre artistically, romantic comedies aren’t simply traditionally beloved, but also a true art form which has produced some of the most classic and enduring films we know today. These films should receive the recognition they deserve along with an experience to bring together a community of film fans that flock to them.
In my humble opinion, what better way to celebrate a genre than to acknowledge its problematic tendencies and past while celebrating the feats it accomplishes. Rom Com Fest allowed a space for and encouraged both of these things to happen, and the genre as a whole is certainly better for it.