Michael Lukk Litwak’s “Molli and Max in the Future” is a hilarious satirical rom-com of the present. [SXSW]

Content Warning: Photosensitive viewers should be aware that Molli and Max in the Future contains a great deal of flashing lights and bright neon colors that may trigger issues. Though no migraine was caused by the end of the viewing for the reviewer, that doesn’t mean other sensitive individuals may not develop one or experience a different physiological reaction.

When it comes to rom-coms, audiences know just about all the tropes and tricks not limited to, but including: the enemies-to-lovers (10 Things I Hate About You), the catfish (While You Were Sleeping), the makeover (My Fair Lady), the contract (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days), and, of course, best friends-turned-lovers (When Harry Met Sally). These tropes are so common in storytelling that sometimes the best thing a storyteller can do to switch things up is blow them all up (see: 2019’s surprising Isn’t It Romantic). For his feature-length debut, writer/director Michael Lukk Litwak makes his rom-com offering to the masses in his hilariously sweet Molli and Max in the Future, a film that’s a straight-forward character study of two people across more than a decade that just so happens to include mech fighting, demi-gods, trans-dimensional battles, and an election for ruler of the galaxy. Don’t mistake the fantastique setting as merely set dressing (practical and imaginative as it is), Molli and Max demonstrates that some love stories transcend time and place, everything else is just a foothold for the reality in which they live.

At some point in the future humankind and other sentient lifeforms will co-exist across planets and dimensions, co-mingling as they live ordinary lives amid some truly mindboggling circumstances. And yet, it takes an absolute accident for open-minded Molli (Zosia Mamet) and mechanically-inclined Max (Aristotle Athiras) to meet. These two opposites find themselves intrigued by the other, developing a connection that’s strong enough to survive distance and time as they discover their friendship grounds them in a way no one else is. But can they make the leap when there’re other dimensions, other possibilities, and intergalactic domination on the horizon?

Molli and Max in the Future

L-R: Zosia Mamet as Molli and Aristotle Athiras as Max in MOLLI AND MAX IN THE FUTURE. Photo courtesy of SXSW.

Molli and Max is an incredibly charming lo-fi-meets-hi-fi concept that walks the line between social satire and traditional rom-com. The sets themselves and the lengths Litwak goes to in order to create his futuristic, multidimensional narrative world feel like they’re inspired by one of writer/director Robert Rodriquez’s “10 Minute Film School” featurettes, and that’s a compliment of the highest order. Even when it’s clear in the early portions of the film that Litwak is reusing the same staging with a different backdrop for his characters to perform in front of, there’s no loss of artistry or wonder. Instead, it becomes part of the charm, as though the audience is invited to let go of their reason and engage their imagination. To a degree, that’s what falling in love is, right? It’s going on a quest led by a mix of chemistry and inspiration (with a dash of pheromones, of course), the setting and the period often less important than how the other person makes them feel. Drenched in the neon glow from the various locales and clever visual effects, the world of Molli and Max transforms from two people on a stage with a green screen into a tale as old as time … and what a jolly ride it is.

To ensure that the audience doesn’t get lost in the dayglow, Litwak’s script includes chapter cards so that we know exactly where we are in the timelines of the characters. These prepare us to understand how either Molli or Max may have changed, enabling the script to skip over certain expected differences, even within a few years’ time. Additionally, it seems to have a strong grasp of the science from which the fiction draws, allowing it to creatively skewer the very reality the last nine years in our actual timeline and universe have felt like. It explains just enough for the nerds (it me) to understand before jumping off in an unexpected detour. Rather than obstructions or challenges to the world in which these characters live, these present opportunities to mine comedy out of the absurd or surreal. Some of these include an election between a highly qualified female candidate and someone from the Trash Dimension as they battle for the position of ruler of the galaxy via a call-in program, issues of climate destruction being the by-product of corporate greed, the balance of personal growth over wealth, and how to exist in a world in which every choice we make is part of a larger system designed to keep us all subjugated. Something you wouldn’t expect to draw laughs, yet it functions like a way-homer as the viewing audience draws connections between the fictional celebrations on-screen and their relationship to their real-world counter-parts which are born out of atrocities (there’s literally a Happy Genocide Day that could be a stand-in for *any* U.S.-based holiday). This could be overwhelming at times, the jokes falling flat if not for the ground-level view we’re given via Molli and Max and the performances from Mamet and Athiras. For all of the heighted shenanigans, these characters and the actors bring about a sense of reality, anchoring all that comes so as not to lose the emotional thread running through the film.

Though there are several characters who play significant parts in the overall story — Arturo Castro of The Menu (2022), Paloma Garcia-Lee of West Side Story (2021), Okieriete Onaodowan of Hamilton (2020) (That’s right, HERCULES MULLIGAN!) — each with their own scene-stealing moments, leaning into the absurdity as if it’s perfectly normal, it’s Mamet and Athiras who anchor the film. Mamet brings about a strength and sweetness without sacrificing Molli’s intelligence or agency. She’s neither a manic pixie dream girl nor fully together; she has goals, understands her sexuality, and is willing to put in the work to get where she wants to be. She is a modern person living in an extraordinary time, recognizing that things aren’t always going to be the same so she should go with the flow. Through Mamet, the audience can see just how much of this is public posturing and authentic, each moment that challenges Molli coming through as honestly as possible. For his part, Athiras plays Max a little bit of an opposite, aware of himself and filled with drive, but not as outspoken or opinionated. The character, too, recognizes the oddness of the period in which he lives, yet adheres to a more (what we would call) traditional outlook. But where other rom-coms might have Max look down on or deride Molli for her choices, he continuously speaks with concern and respectful honesty. That the character opts to respect Molli over trying to change her implies that Litwak switched the gender norms for a rom-com, yet the energies one expects from a genre piece like this remain intact. Perhaps because it’s more character-focused, thereby relying more on talking than doing, both Mamet and Athiras are able to convey the complex shades of each character without being limited to whatever modern expectation audiences have. In fact, even with a brisk 94-minute runtime, there’s no grey area regarding these two characters, in part to the writing and to the actors, making the audience feel like the quest was worth the trials.

If you’re in the mood for a love story that involves robot fights, organ-eating demons, and quantum mechanics, Molli and Max in the Future is the story for you. Even when it feels borne from a Stefon sketch and designed with junkyard scraps, there’s never a sense of reduction or falsehood. These characters buy into their lives — therefore, so do we. And if love can find us before we’re ready and stays with us until we are, as we’ve seen play out in various stories over the centuries, why isn’t all the rest possible to? So, do yourself the favor and go on an adventure. You won’t regret the ride.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head either to the official SXSW or Michael Lukk Litwak’s Molli and Max in the Future webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews

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