Vacations are terrible. Years ago, I went on one where my friend threw a lawn chair into a pool, after getting into a fight with her boyfriend over Twilight. That same vacation, I threw a bag of Baked Lays at my girlfriend because she criticized my Chapstick. Then everyone had to leave early because one us of said – and I quote – “Well SOME of us have cats around here, and SOME of those cats need to be fed.” Most Americans only get ten days off a year, and consequently suffer intense pressure to make their vacations Instagrammable. It’s a miserable crucible, and the perfect setting for That’s Not Us, a smart story about three couples (two queer, one just kinda lame) trying to make love work.
You probably haven’t heard of That’s Not Us. Produced by Mark Berger, an associate producer behind Hedwig and The Angry Inch, That’s Not Us is headed for its world premiere at Inside Out Toronto in just a few weeks. There’s no hot directors or big-name producers here (although, in a gratuitous creepy tangent, one hell of an attractive cast). I hope it goes somewhere, and if it doesn’t, too bad. That’s Not Us has to be one of the most emotionally mature films I’ve seen in a while: attuned to how we treat and talk and f*ck up the people we love the most.
Set in Fire Island, one of New York’s best spots for unprotected gay sex, That’s Not Us features three couples headed out for a carefree beach weekend. From helmet-less bike rides to undulating ocean waves to unrelenting humping, we’re led to believe that the entire group is in the advanced stages of love. “Everyone’s so happy,” you think to yourself, followed by the inevitable: “I wonder how they’ll destroy themselves.”
It takes a minute for That’s Not Us to cook, but the ingredients are always there. Alex (Sarah Wharton) and Jackie (Nicole Pursell) are a lesbian couple who haven’t had sex in months, and think that the solution to their problems is to keep talking about them. Research has shown that that is both (1)unhelpful and (2)annoying. Dougie (Tommy Nelms) and Liz (Elizabeth Gray) are the film’s straight couple who struggle to maintain a healthy power dynamic (Dougie doesn’t eat pussy, and Elizabeth doesn’t eat sh*t). James (Mark Berger) and Spencer (David Rysdahl) face a potential rupture: Spencer was just accepted at the University of Chicago, one of the country’s “top education schools.” James doesn’t want Spencer to leave, but he does want him to pursue his dreams of becoming one of the country’s “top chemistry teachers.”
Now, this may seem like a petty complaint, but it nonetheless bothered me: “top . . . high school . . . chemistry teachers?” No one wants that, not even a fictional character. Also, I spent years as a certified social worker and teacher, and let me tell you – you could pick up your education diploma from Family Dollar and nobody would blink an eye. While teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there (p.s. we say “hardest jobs” when we’re “not in the mood for paying someone”), most educators don’t care where you earned your stripes. Once I worked in a school where a teacher, who was accused of showing violent porn to students, was fired, then rehired a year later to coach the basketball team (ok, he was a good coach). Your diploma matters less than your sex offender record (sort of), and I kind of wish the filmmakers had done a little more homework.
It’s a petulant point, though, in a movie that’s clearly researched love. When Dougie and Elizabeth and Alex start to fight, they fight in a way that’s so real and naturalistic it’s borderline disturbing. Alex and and Jackie struggle to talk about their lack of a sex life in ways that should feel familiar to all of us. “I feel like . . .” Alex says, then follows it up with about thirteen decades of pauses. “Oh, the ‘I feel like’ conversation,” I thought to myself: the way educated urbanites try to use therapist-approved opening sentences to describe their primordial rage. Spencer and James get into an explosive fight while on a light jaunt in the country, and Elizabeth almost kills her boyfriend over a bicycle. These are smart, attractive people who’ve managed to cross burning Internet hellscapes and find other smart, attractive people to love. And they STILL complain. You wanna smack ‘em, but you can’t, cause they’re otherwise nice people who sound a lot like your friends, and a little like you.
I was worried that That’s Not Us would fall into the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf trap: stories that get off on watching rich people destroy each other. “Isn’t it insane how these people look so great on the outside . . . but they’re so f*cked up on the INSIDE?” says Husbands and Wives, War of the Roses, and every high school literary magazine, ever. But Director Will Sullivan took an outrageous gamble and allowed the actors to actually improvise their dialogue. Normally, I would say that’s a miserable idea, but in That’s Not Us it sincerely, genuinely works. Too often, too smart writers write too glib characters who talk they’re a live Twitter stream on Adderall. The cast is quick enough here that they’re not afraid to talk like real humans talk: with insight, humor, and narcissism.
While That’s Not Us works hard to tell an honest love story, the ending feels a little bit too clean to be authentic. The director, I think, was so interested in creating parallel stories and neat narrative arcs that he didn’t quite allow the plot to breathe. Without giving anything away (while probably still giving everything away), know that That’s Not Us identifies as a romantic comedy, a genre that prides itself on happy endings, tidy morals, and making me hurl. That’s Not Us is, thankfully, grounded and emotionally available — if not totally over its form. “Don’t worry, Heather,” my friend told me after the movie, “one day, all those relationships will fall apart.”
It’s a cynical epitaph, but a fitting one, especially in a movie so dedicated to exploring intimacy with a monocle. Most of our romantic comedies aren’t real love stories, they’re falling-in-love stories, one of our easiest narratives to write — and one of our most destructive. Nobody wants to go to the movies and watch a couple cry over Apples to Apples, even though that’s 90% of love (Jesus, at what point in history did we stop throwing key parties and start throwing board game parties? Lame). So kudos to That’s Not Us for showing us love’s ugly profile. It’s unattractive and gross but always worth fighting for.
Heather Dockray is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.