Years after he “died” in a helicopter crash, Jesse returns to find his wife Emma about to marry her best friend Sam.
I admit that after watching the trailer for this slight, slushy yet just-endearing-enough romcom, I was fully Team Sam (the fiancé of Emma) rather than Team Jesse (her husband who returns after four years, just in time to interrupt Emma and Sam’s wedding planning).
Yet watching the actual movie I found myself flip-flopping. First Sam (Simu Liu) seemed a bit wet. Then Jesse (Luke Bracey) came back from the dead in that horrible tracksuit. Then Sam sounded a bit patriarchal. Then Jesse sounded REALLY patriarchal. Eventually I decided Emma (Philippa Soo) could probably do with four years away from both of them on a desert island of her own. Still, finally I was won over by Sam, his obsession with the three dots when someone starts typing on their phone and then… stops resonating strongly with my own messaging insecurities.
Sam is set up as an outsider from the start; even once he’s clasped to the bosom of Emma’s family after years loving her, first as best friends then from afar, he seems like he’s on the edge. With Jesse back is Sam going to be friend-zoned again, this time for good?
Actually although Emma’s dad thanks him for helping her find a second chance there’s an uncomfortable sense that Sam is actually second choice, someone Emma is settling for, along with her life running the family bookshop, something she had tried to avoid until she was “widowed”. While the film goes to great lengths to explain that she only agrees to marry him once she has broken free from her old life with Jesse, that feeling never really goes away.
With Jesse’s return, Emma’s sister Marie (Michaela Conlin) explains very clearly to us what Emma’s choice really is: not which man Emma loves most but what kind of woman she is with each of them. At this stage of her life, who does she actually want to be?
The story dots around past, further past and present for the first act, and becomes harder to follow when we move from characters’ teen years, played by younger actors, to adulthood. I sometimes struggled to work out where we now were.
Once Jesse came back though there were a whole bucket full of new questions: why wasn’t his beard down to the floor? What was with those hideous tracky bottoms? And most importantly where had he been?
No one seemed that interested in his whereabouts or how he had got home. Movie-friendly amnesia? Finally sowing some wild oats? Maybe he’d meant to return but got to the “too embarrassed to do anything about it” stage, like when you don’t catch someone’s name when first introduced and now after several years of marriage it’s too late to ask. Perhaps, like the Olympics, he only appears every four years.
Finding out he had literally been marooned on a desert island was quite mind-blowing. That’s the kind of story that would speed round the world’s newsrooms and social media, yet it all feels very small scale and is then barely mentioned, with the shortest of flashbacks. Think of it as Castaway:The Aftermath, but with no volleyball Wilson, and none of Chuck Noland’s hideous jumpers.
(I also need to improve my geography as I was not expecting a trip to Alaska to result in several years stuck on a desert island.)
While the focus is on Emma’s choice, the lack of prominence given to Jesse’s recent whereabouts contributes to a general air of lowish budget, made-for-TV-movie-itis. The flashback to the world’s windiest wedding reception, everyone trying to ignore the waving gazebo, doesn’t help.
The imagery can be heavy-handed (the lighthouse, lighting the way back for sailors lost at sea) though I did enjoy the boldly expositionary speech from Marie, her monologue about Emma’s situation wittily delivered to her sister despite its obviousness. (I have a soft spot for Conlin though, after binge-watching Bones during long dark nights awake with a teething baby 13 years ago.) Later in the film, an unposted letter is used as a similar device. One True Loves is based on a best-selling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid; I haven’t read it but presumably these two expositions are designed to cover great chunks of the book’s narrative.
Soo is particularly good; Liu is extremely engaging; Bracey, who to be fair has much less to do, is fine; all are let down by the limitations of a thin script. Even though Soo and Liu work well together, that Sam and Emma are much more watchable — and more winning — when apart says it all.
The funniest sections are when Emma and Sam are with their own “clan”. For Emma that’s her parents, sister and brother-in-law, in their family bookstore. Emma’s journey from non-reader, to reader as long as it’s not about love or death, to avid devourer of books may be unlikely but it’s great fun to watch. Sam leads the high school orchestra, spending every rehearsal moaning to them about the Emma situation, and the musical teens are delightful: they may be earnest and deeply empathic but they also live for a bit of drama. A love triangle / potential throuple involving their own teacher is simply too much to pass up.
Jesse doesn’t really have a clan. Somebody get that man a volleyball to talk to!
One True Loves was released in US cinemas on 7 April 2023 and on digital on 14 April.