I love a good romance. Perhaps because reality is unpredictable, often heart-wrenchingly so, there’s comfort in a romantic tale. The key in sticking the landing is the perspective of the creative team, as well as the talent in front of the camera. You could be Richard Curtis (About Time; Love, Actually), but without cast chemistry, the story is DOA. You could put Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson together, but without a solid script or capable director, the whole thing could be a waste. Luckily, neither is the case with writer/director Renuka Jeyapalan and Stay the Night, her new film having its world premiere at SXSW 2022, starring Andrea Bang (Luce) and Joe Scarpellino (in his first theatrical role). Jeyapalan dispenses with the usual bullshit that makes up romances or romantic comedies, making use of clever twists of fate, the right word or act, using regular human vulnerabilities to weave together a tale that’s less meet-cute and more once-in-a-lifetime.
Between finding out that she didn’t get a promotion she wanted because of her reserved personality and her friend Joni (Humberly González) needing a place to take a hook-up back to, Grace (Bang) is having a shitty evening as she kills time before the hook-up is done and she can go to bed. Similarly, hockey player Carter Stone (Scarpellino) could be better as the next 24 hours will determine if he’ll ever lace up skates again. When a purely happenstance situation puts them in the same cab, the two end up spending the night together, finding solace in someone who can push them only the way a stranger can yet with the empathy of someone who recognizes pain.
So much of Stay the Night feels like a breath of fresh air. The script doesn’t talk down to or belittle the central characters, it doesn’t create ridiculous situations to create connection, and, where it utilizes tropes, it does so with specific purpose. These characters, Grace and Carter, are strangers who become confidantes in the span of hours, their coming together set up smoothly and quickly, each one established singularly before being thrust together. Where the script and performances really impress are in the “before” moments in which Grace and Carter begin their respective journeys. Jeyapalan makes a point to establish that Grace is fully capable, successful, yet lacks the assertiveness the job she wants requires. This doesn’t make Grace less-than or diminished, it merely brings about a personality flaw. She similarly establishes Joe as missing something, though what it is is not pronounced immediately, leaving something to be explored throughout the course of the film. What is made clear, however, is, like Grace, Carter is a modern individual. This manifests in small ways for him, but mostly it’s the ethical form of pursuit he displays. Before he meets Grace, Carter is chatting up a different girl, someone he knew previously, but not well enough to know she was already in a relationship. Upon finding it out, he doesn’t try to convince her to leave or otherwise try to sleep with her. As written and performed, Carter is a modern man, interested in physical intimacy but not to the point of overpowering or manipulating to get it. Of course, this sensitivity ends up being just the thing Grace needs in order to open up and, perhaps, even get over what hinders her. Quickly, though not rushed, Jeyapalan sets all of this up in order to eventually put the two together, an accident-turned-into-coincidence.
More than the clever ways in which the pair find themselves put together (and stay there until the end of the film), I loved Jeyapalan’s approach to the courtship of the characters. Certainly aided by Bang and Scarpellino’s respective performances, neither character was diminished in service of the other, neither journey required a sacrifice or proclamation, neither offered a bold or grand statement. These were just two people at an internal crossroads who happened to find someone at the right moment who could make the passing of time just a little softer and a little faster. Going back to the subtly of things, in one scene, Grace takes Carter (constantly hungry and in search of a drink) to a place she knows. This requires him to trust her, a woman he’s just met in a city he doesn’t know at all, implicitly. By this point in the film, a little trust has been earned but, truthfully, we don’t know enough about Grace at this point to know ourselves where the scene will go. What matters most in this exchange is the power dynamic between the two. Grace is proactively coming up with ideas and leading Carter to their destination, aware that his safety is up to her. By doing this, she has to be assured in what she’s doing. If either Carter or Grace had stopped to probe about this, she’d likely have convinced herself it was a bad idea and the film as it was intended would come to a stop. Instead, this sequence shows off how Grace contains the capability of confidence well before any major turning point in the film arrives. I also quite enjoy how the typical trope of person-hides-who-they-are gets dealt with quickly and with reason, the emotions never too extreme, the explanation something Grace can relate to, so as to dispense with secrets and allow the characters to truly engage each other.
The sole complaint within Stay the Night comes with the cinematography. In giving the film its natural aesthetic, appearing to light scenes with what’s available within the respective scene, there’s a great deal we don’t see as a result. Scenes like the two first meeting at the entrance to a bar work because the design helps both character see each other well despite it being well past sundown and everything that follows from that meeting into their unintended cab share ride shares the same cleanliness of image. Us being able to see them makes it far more convincing that the two are able to get a physical measure of the other, as well, something which would be far more plainly clear in a typical rom-com (ex. 2022’s Marry Me). In other scenes, like in Carter’s hotel room, the bar Grace takes Carter, and many others, the natural lighting is so limited that, in order to maintain the strength of the narrative’s reality, the use of heavy shadows starts to frustrate.
Stay the Night is a simple story about connection and how, by being open to a moment with another person, we can be transformed immeasurably. Between a script that never dumbs itself down and charming performances from the leads, Jeyapalan’s film feels like a refreshing take on a genre in need of it. It never asks to be anything more than what it is, while confidently offering its ideas forward. Perhaps because I recently watched the first two episode of Apple TV+’s The Afterparty and found the hypermasculinity and male-insistence revolting, seeing a take on romance that is patient, kind, and mature felt like an aperitif. More than that, it’s a good reminder that we deserve the best version of our partner *and* ourselves to be happy. Not just in love, but in life.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Saturday, March 12th, Screening @ 8:45p CT, Alamo Lamar A
*Sunday, March 13th, On-line Screening @ 9a CT
*Monday, March 14th, Screening @ 11:45a CT, Alamo Lamar A
*Wednesday, March 16th, Screening @ 6:30p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 1
*Wednesday, March 16th, Screening @ 7p CT, Violet Crown Cinema 3
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.