LOS ANGELES – Miraya Berke loves romantic comedies. She was devouring new ones on Netflix recently when she started wondering: Why is this genre so rarely featured in film festivals?
And then she asked herself another question: If no one else is willing to do it, why shouldn't she?
A movie buff and event planner, Berke, 29, decided to curate her own dream version of Sundance — the first ever Rom Com Fest, an event to celebrate a genre that is often beloved for being relatable and uplifting while criticized for being clichéd, far-fetched and retrograde.
Berke and the countless other wide-eyed Nora Ephron disciples acknowledge that the rom-com classics do not age well, but they adore these films anyway. Walking into a darkened theater, the love junkie knows she's about to indirectly experience the pleasure of falling for someone and finding herself. It's a delicious escape from the real-world terrors of Tinder.
Over a weekend in late June, hopeless romantics in their 20s to 40s packed screenings of such favorites as "Never Been Kissed" and "10 Things I Hate About You," along with several new independent films. "I [Heart] You" balloons swayed in the wind outside the Downtown Independent theater. Inside, there were sweets — mochi, Ring Pops, buckets of fruity, fizzy drinks promising zero calories. Even the restroom looked wedding shower ready.
The seats were filled with women who dreamed of being the next Ali Wong or Candace Bushnell. Women who have "love" tattooed on their inner wrist. Women who saw Instagram ads for the festival, booked flights from all over the country and told their families, "Mommy needs to do this."
Watching these movies is akin to mainlining hope into your brain.
"You know it's not real," said Diana Cooper, 32. "But you hope one or two things from the movie could happen."
Cooper has had her share of frustrating false starts. "Remember that guy who broke up with me because he didn't love me as much as he loved his twin sister?" she said to a friend.
Yes, the friend confirmed, he really said that.
After that, Cooper took a two-year dating break. Now, with a fresh haircut, she feels physically prepared to date again — and she went to Rom Com Fest to get in the right head space. These movies are "a reminder that everything isn't going to be perfect," she said, "but what's the harm in trying?"
Seen in a new light
The movies take on a new meaning when viewed in the #MeToo era. If a squirm had a sound, it would be an uncomfortable groan-laugh heard throughout the sold-out screening of "Never Been Kissed." In the 1999 film, Drew Barrymore plays Josie Geller, a journalist posing as a high school student to get a juicy story. She falls for her teacher, and he clearly likes her back.
After the credits rolled, Rachel Bloom, the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" creator, began a question-and-answer session by apologizing for picking "Never Been Kissed" to screen. She hadn't seen the film in about a decade, she said, and she had forgotten about the hints of pedophilia.
Nonetheless, Bloom still loves this film for the attention it gives to teenage dorks, she said. Like many of the women in the audience, she said she connected with the films because they made her feel less alone.
"Maybe these movies reinforce stereotypes," she acknowledged. "But on the other hand, it was the only time I really saw myself … in these losers.
"For so long, these types of movies were the only things being made for women," Bloom continued. "And I think that we're now really questioning: What art have we kind of pushed aside in a different category that we can now elevate?"
A woman in the audience asked Bloom if teenagers should still watch these older rom-coms now that there are more diverse and politically correct hits such as "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" and "Always Be My Maybe." Bloom said yes.
Traditional rom-coms show what the status quo once was, she said, so that viewers can understand how the genre is evolving. Many of the weekend's newer independent films underscored those changes. They don't always end with a ring or even a kiss. One of the festival favorites, "In Reality," centers on a woman's quest to get over a breakup and find happiness in herself — a time-tested rom-com theme, but this time without the man.
Berke had help arranging the festival from her boyfriend, Matt DeMartini. They are former high school friends who reunited three years ago (which sounds like a rom-com plot itself). He helped her sift through all the festival's movies.
DeMartini said that many people have asked why he didn't propose that weekend. If it were 1999, he might have. But his answer reflects how rom-coms — and actual relationships — are evolving. He'd thought about proposing, he admitted. But it wasn't the right time.
"I don't want to undermine her big event," he said. "That should be about the two of us."