There’s something about a wedding that feels oddly restorative. Symbolically, it’s a new beginning, one in which two families are coming together to form something new, something larger, and, potentially, something stronger than what was before. This romantic notion of weddings is not just a modern convention, but one which breeds false ideals about what a wedding should be and what should be involved. Until the modern era, weddings were no more than business deals in which women were given to suitors as a means of bettering the situation for their parents and siblings. Even the most quintessential object of the wedding process, the engagement ring, didn’t take up space in the collective consciousness until after the Depression when a marketing company helped Da Beers sell the diamonds no one was buying. Though the story crafted by Stephanie Wu and Sara Zandieh, who also serves as director, doesn’t dig into the patriarchal aspects of marriage, the romantic comedy A Simple Wedding does explore the conflict between cultural perceptions of love and the greater significance of philautia, or self-love. It’s in this exploration that Wu and Zandieh’s story takes hold of the mind and grips the heart as the audience goes on a journey that subverts expectations over and over.Iranian-American Nousha Husseini (Tara Grammy) is your average young professional. She supports her friends’ causes, enjoys loving company, and excels at her job. This is enough for her, but not for her parents Ziba and Reza (Shohreh Aghdashloo and Houshang Touzie) who wish to see her married, so much so that Ziba is constantly setting up Nousha with different dates to make it happen. Nousha reluctantly goes along with it due to cultural traditions, but things change for her when she meets DJ-and-artist Alex (Christopher O’Shea) at a protest and the two instantly click. Their newly discovered romance takes an immediate hard turn toward long-term commitment when Nousha’s parents discover her new beau and insist on a wedding. Where the question is usually “do we love each other?” in these kinds of situations, Nousha’s confronted with a larger question of “do I love myself?.”
The overall premise of A Simple Wedding seems fairly obvious and overused at first glance. Virtually every family encounters some kind of friction when members start to meld together, but the inclusion of cultural clash tends to up the ante a little bit. Audiences have seen this done before in films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Proposal, and the Meet the Parents trilogy, but what makes A Simple Wedding unique by comparison is one specific aspect: the internal conflict present within the lead, Nousha. Most rom-coms make the conflict about conflicting traditions or opposing world-views, whereas Wu and Zandieh’s story uses these elements as a pot boiler for what’s really going on within Nousha who doesn’t seem to do things for herself. Some context: when the film opens, Nousha is abruptly dumped by her fiancée’s mom and she’s not heartbroken over it as she realizes she was going to marry the guy because it made her mother happy. When she meets Alex, their pairing isn’t “too perfect” like most rom-coms. Instead, the writers opt to make them equal in their differences. However, Nousha remains concerned over her parents’ reactions to her new beau, not just because he’s a bisexual artist/musican with divorced parents while Nousha is an immigrant from a war-torn country, but because she knows they’ll insist on marriage. The obvious thing is to make the wedding to climax event and Wu and Zandieh dodge this by placing it squarely in the center of the film. All of these little details build toward a realization that A Simple Wedding isn’t about whether Nousha marries, but whether she finds love, most importantly, whether she loves herself. Amid the all-too-relatable hilarity and discomfort of the two families coming together (I’m Jewish and EoM editor Crystal is not) comes this hidden nugget of personal exploration and internal affection.
What certainly helps with the audience buy-in is the superb casting. Grammy is absolutely outstanding as Nousha, instilling multitudes within a genre that would have her be incredibly one-note. The same can be said for both Aghdashloo and Touzie as Nousha’s parents. Often these characters get short-handed into pick-your-parental-stereotype with a dash of cultural authenticity, but not here. Yes, the performances feel authentic to the culture the characters are based in but the actors present them as more than caricatures. Through line delivery and performance, Aghdashloo and Touzie create subtext which enables the audience to see that the marriage they want for their daughter isn’t just because tradition says so but because of what they’ve endured. Like most parents, though, the manner in which they strive to protect their children is often the very thing that carves a wedge between them. O’Shea is a perfect scene partner for Grammy, imbuing Alex with an aura of spontaneity and positive energy that contrasts wonderfully against Nousha’s more restricted POV. What’s particularly wonderful about the cast is how they bring out the positive aspects in the writing. For example, Nousha isn’t dour or negative in any sense; however, it’s clear from the context that she’s constantly in a state of internal turmoil as she tries to figure out the best for herself and the best for her family. It’s a hard line to balance and Grammy endears herself to the audience quickly, making the emotional journey of the film all the more rewarding.
Between strong performances from the primary and supporting cast and a thoughtful, sweet story, A Simple Wedding manages to defy the conventions of the typical romantic comedy, even finding ways to play within them. It’s worth noting that in its hurry to get to the good stuff, there’s a lot of short-handing in character descriptions and relationships, as well as a strange inability to track just how long events are taking within the internal clock. However, these are all forgivable as the heart-warming message within is louder and more visible than any deficits. In fact, it’s worth applauding that a film that puts the cultural divide up as the driving factor of conflict and reveals it to be a misdirection, allowing for an unveiling of simultaneous specificity and universality to be explored. There really is no such thing as a simple wedding, but there is always a simple love at the center.
In theaters and on VOD February 14th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.