Sick of Hallmark holiday love stories? Try Joe Duca’s authentic “Evergreen.”

Romantic relationships as depicted in film often receive derision for being too picture perfect, creating unrealistic expectations for what love is really like between two broken people hoping to find a fulfilling partnership. In traditional romances, those which have an HEA or “happily ever after,” these individuals overcome or resolve their individual circumstance obstacles and find their way to one another. All too often, however, the barriers that appear feel as if they are manufactured or are larger-than-life for the purposes of keeping the couple apart and ramping up the tension (arranged marriage to someone else, secret baby, misunderstandings, different social classes, or fear of disappointing parents are all common examples). Rarer to be found are films about modern romance which are authentic, relatable, and representative of how real people talk, act, and think today.

In his first feature-length directorial debut, “Evergreen,” Joe Duca skips the pretense and overdramatic plots to create a spare, realistic, and emotionally intense story of two interfaith Millenials hoping to take their relationship to the next level after a year of dating. Paul (Tanner Kalina; Everybody Wants Some) and Gena (Amanda Maddox; Gripped) escape to a secluded cabin on the Colorado Western Slope for a romantic Christmas weekend together. Everything looks and seems perfect between this handsome couple throughout the introductory scenes, but it’s not long before we discover the obstacle these two will need to overcome: Tanner, a devout Catholic, wants to wait to consummate until marriage, while Gena, raised in a Christian church but now a committed agnostic, wants the intimacy and connection that sex provides and sees no reason to wait. Their clashing desires and expectations set the stage for a weekend fraught with tension.

L-R: Olivia Grace Applegate as Cassie and Tanner Kalina as Paul in Joe Duca’s EVERGREEN.

Frustrated at the stand still and by the conversations this couple has clearly had many times before, Gena proposes they play a high-stakes game of Question and Answer. Any questions asked must be answered honestly and physical touching is off the table for the weekend (since it’s Paul who most often takes things too far and then wants to throw on the brakes).  As the weekend progresses and the couple goes back and forth, secrets come out, and the conversation becomes more crucial. Paul and Gena need to decide once and for all if they belong together, and if their relationship is worth the internal work both of them need to do.

The scenario that plays out on screen will be all too familiar to anyone who has tried to date outside of religious worldview, especially anyone who has felt lead to abstain from sex before marriage. Though it’s rarely depicted on screen today, there are warm-blooded adults who make this choice willingly. Director Duca, who also wrote the screenplay based on a story co-written by himself, Kalina, and Marshall Kistner, successfully keeps the film from taking sides towards one position or the other. “Evergreen” isn’t about whether it’s right or wrong for this couple to have sex, it’s about the ways we often say we believe one thing when the truth is far more complicated, how often it’s safer to hide behind a moral stance than to admit how much we have been hurt. Both Paul and Gena have their reasons for feeling as they do, but they have each felt compelled to hide the complete truth from each other.

L-R: Tanner Kalina as Paul and Amanda Maddox as Gena in Joe Duca’s EVERGREEN.

With a small cast and the one-home location, “Evergreen” could easily be adapted for the stage. Much like a Duplass Brothers production, the meat of the film consists of the two main characters in conversation with one another. Both Kalina and Maddox devote themselves to their roles, giving their characters weight and nuance. They feel like real people, not actors playing parts. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their decisions or actions, they express appropriate emotions and speak their lines with conviction. The camera captures their faces and body language towards one another, as well as glances or emotional tells that happen when one or the other isn’t looking. Two other characters make an appearance, as well, each representing an important past love interest for our mains: Cassie (Olivia Grace Applegate; Krisha) and Dylan (David Bianchi; Birds of Prey). Both add to the story in ways that reveal crucial information about Paul and Gena and the motivations behind their position.

Production designer Oliver Johnson does much with his contained setting of a cabin in snowy Colorado. The film is shot in natural light with many scenes happening outdoors, making much of the picturesque landscapes. The magic of the season is captured inside the cozy cabin thanks to the festive holiday lights and the warm glow from the fireplace, even as Paul and Gena deal with raw and intense emotions. The two make a handsome couple, with wardrobe choices that play on the holiday palette of white, red, and shades of blue-green. Early morning in a winter cabin is the last place one might expect to see a man in a red velvet blazer and bowtie and a lady in a white faux fur coat, but on Paul and Gena, it looks completely natural. And it must be said, for a movie shot in only 10 days and with a budget of a little over only $15,000, the picture quality remains crisp throughout and is a joy to watch.

Tanner Kalina as Paul in Joe Duca’s EVERGREEN.

“Evergreen” perfectly captures the raw and difficult process of trying to move from the fun, flirty stages of dating to the higher plain of committed, intimate love, a process that requires taking stock of your past, forgiving yourself and past lovers, and choosing to let past hurts go to cling to another. While not a flawless film, it’s a brave and honest one that will be dearly beloved by viewers looking for an alternative to the saccharine sweet, HEA holiday Hallmark movie or by viewers looking for authentic portrayals of interfaith relationships on film.

Available on VOD and digital December 1st, 2020.

Head to the official website for more information on Evergreen.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Categories: Reviews, streaming

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