"Has anyone been in love?" asks our unassuming documentarist Charlyne Yi in the opening scene of Paper Heart. She's standing in the middle of our modern-day temple of public opinion—a mall—asking passersby this tender yet tough question. But no one stops to answer. They just glance at our hoodie-d protagonist with the sad little microphone and keep on walking.
Exploring the existence and nature of true love isn't going to be an easy assignment.
But then Charlyne already knew that. The real-life stand-up comic was actually motivated to embark on this quest by her own skepticism. Despite the charming flashbacks to young Charlyne marrying off stuffed animal couple Kermit and Miss Piggy, the now-20something claims she doesn't believe in love. The slick Hollywood version and cookie-cutter fairy-tale imitations have turned Charlyne off from love completely.
So she sets off across America with her buddy Nick to film a documentary either proving or disproving her loveless theory. Along the way, she discusses relationships with a 43-year-old divorcee while they play pool in his Nashville basement. She receives a lesson in the biology of love from a professor at Texas Tech University. She listens to the love story of a Little Rock couple who have been married for 50 years. She gets dating advice from grade school kids on an Atlanta playground. She also talks to a wedding-chapel Elvis impersonator, a romance novelist, a diner full of bikers, a homosexual couple, teenage newlyweds, a judge and lawyer (who happen to be married), and a psychic.
A couple of the love stories are portrayed with clever homemade paper dolls, made by Yi herself. These scenes are playful and endearingly amateurish and somehow seem to capture the childlike wonder of falling in love.
While interviewing friends at a party, Charlyne meets actor Michael Cera (who plays himself). He's instantly smitten with Charlyne, and we watch their sweetly awkward, very unHollywood romance (she doesn't even take off her hood or seemingly comb her hair for most of their dates) blossom throughout the rest of the film. In fact, their relationship becomes a major focus of the movie, as they illustrate the possibility of true love even while wrestling with having their every interaction captured on film.
While their relationship is odd and endearing, it's also a bit confusing. Those who know Cera and Yi were a real-life dating couple (apparently they recently split, just before this film was released) will wonder how autobiographical this romance is. The movie's promotional materials say the film is part documentary and part fiction, and we're pretty much on our own to figure out which is which. Perhaps there's a larger message lurking here: True love is part fact and part fantasy. Or maybe it's just the intentional messiness of a quirky, post-modern, anti-Hollywood romance.
It's this very messiness that makes this unassuming "documentary" work. There are lovely moments of raw honesty or nostalgic flashback among the people Charlyne interviews. There are really wise bits of advice about relationships from couples who have been together for decades and have likely learned these lessons the hard way. The grainy footage and odd camera angles only make these insights seem more authentic. In many ways, this jaded, post-modern film is more pro-relationship than most romances.
That said, the film gets bogged down toward the end with Charlyne and Michael's relationship. While it's interesting to watch Charlyne wrestle with the dichotomy of being both a tomboy and a girlfriend and wonder if she is, in fact, in love, it's the less relatable nature of them trying to date in a fishbowl that gets tiresome. At times Charlyne's super-laid-back, intentionally unprofessional interviewing style veers from charming to annoying. And the ending, though clever, isn't altogether satisfying.
Also, this anti-romance romance/anti-documentary documentary won't appeal to everyone. If you didn't like or didn't get Juno, Superbad, Napoleon Dynamite, and similar films, you likely won't be a big fan of Paper Heart. Of course, if you loved those films, get yourself to a theater to see this pronto. What you'll find is a quirky, mostly endearing commentary on love in a postmodern age.Discussion starters
- Have you ever been in love? If so, what lessons did you learn (or are you still learning) from that experience?
- Do you think Charlyne really doesn't believe in love at the outset of the film? If so, why? If not, what do you think is really going on?
- If Charlyne had interviewed you, what advice would you have given her?
- One couple advises Charlyne to "wait for the lightning bolt" to know if she's really in love. Do you agree or disagree with this advice? Have you had a "lightning bolt" experience?
- Another couple tells Charlyne that "like" is more important than love to help ensure a relationship's longevity. Again, do you agree or disagree? Discuss.
- Were you satisfied with the movie's ending? If so, what do you think the final scene communicated? If not, what would you have preferred?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Paper Heart is rated PG-13 for some language. The language isn't frequent or strong, and overall the movie is pretty tame. Charlyne visits a psychic in one scene, but in the next her director/friend calls the woman a fraud. The sex side of relationships is barely explored, except in conversation with the homosexual couple. All we see Charlyne and Michael do is hold hands and kiss a bit on the couch (with the camera crew right next to them). Actually, the film models several healthy, long-term marriages and couples sharing solid advice for making a relationship go the distance.
Photos © Overture Films
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