IRL is streaming on Prime
I’ve been involved in a few long-distance relationships. Despite taking place about a million years ago, I still remember them. Chiefly, I remember them being not entirely awesome. While everyone else went on dates or prowled bars or parties for ill-advised hookups, I waited by the phone. In between calls and letters, there was a delightful chasm of insecurity to navigate. As much as dating sucked, long-distance dating was a horror show.
That’s not the case for everyone. Long-distance relationships can work. For them to survive and thrive, they depend on trust. They say trust is the key to a relationship. That’s true, but it’s not the only key. One of the others is proximity. Physical proximity will do, yet we all know couples who spend lots of time in the same location that loathe each other. The irony is that those same people would also likely sneer at the idea of an online relationship, one that’s non-traditional.
Well, traditions are fine, until they aren’t. For many of us in this foul year of our Lord 2020, one of the few benefits available is that we can jettison useless old traditions and embrace the new. The online world changed virtually everything, including how we fall in love. Technology can provide us with emotional proximity. Maybe. Or maybe we’re just deluding ourselves. When a new relationship is complicated with distance and technology, is it destined to be a disaster, or can it function as a lifeline of sorts? The new film IRL gives us an answer, one that’s honest, complicated, and hopeful.
Life could be a hell of a lot worse for Ian (Chase Hinton). He’s got what appears to be a reasonably decent apartment in Los Angeles. His gig as a graphic designer pays the bills, or some of them, anyway. He’s intelligent, fairly thoughtful, and doesn’t live with crippling health problems, so he’s got that going for himself, which is nice.
What’s less nice is Ian’s relationship with his father Jonathan (Eric Roberts). To say it’s fraught would be an understatement. There’s also the fact that his career as an artist is going precisely nowhere, so much so that after his work is referred to as derivative, he proceeds to paint the word “derivative” on a canvas in huge letters.*
You’d think that as a bright and decent-looking dude, he’d at least be in good shape in the dating department, right? Oh, ho ho ho no! We get the sense that, at his core, Ian is searching for a connection. He wants to find someone to love and someone to love him, and as a creature of the 21st century, he thinks his best bet is to find her online.
And then? Ian meets Sofia (Johanna Sol). She’s kind. Smart. Has a sense of humor that can be deployed with laser-guided precision. To paraphrase the Sicilians, Ian is hit by the thunderbolt. There’s only one slight problem — Sofia is in Mexico City, caring for her cancer-stricken mother. Will the distance and a lack of trust doom their relationship? Can they make it work somehow?
IRL is a strong film, but let’s first take a moment to celebrate what it isn’t. In an alternate timeline, I had to review the Hollywoodized version of it. There were jokes that I hated, a sassy best friend who’s Black, and a series of misunderstandings that only someone with a massive head wound would fall for. That movie is a nightmare, and luckily, that movie is some other timeline’s problem. Here, we’re given a version of IRL that’s smart, skillful, and soulful.
Despite having directed the film in 2019, Ricardo Perez-Selsky somehow knew what pandemic filmmaking would look like. There would be a small budget, minimal locations, and reduced shooting times. He managed to overcome those gigantic obstacles with style and subtlety.** There are large chunks of the film where Ian and Sofia are simply talking. Perez-Selsky keeps those moments vibrant using intimate shot choices and screen capture, so we see what Ian sees on his phone or tablet. The end result is intimate, so much so that we share in the endorphin boosts and heartbreaks along with Ian.
Chase Hinton pulls double duty as the screenwriter and the lead. He’s a nuanced writer, showing us the various ways Ian searches for love as a son, professionally, or in a new romance. The script is a character piece that examines Ian and his flaws, though not without a healthy degree of compassion. As film viewers, we’ve been conditioned to expect romance to be paired with comedy. That’s not the case here, and while there are a few moments of understated humor,*** the script is designed to be romantic. It’s not cheesy and never overblown. Instead, his screenplay lets us feel the swoon of attraction and the gnaw of doubt.
As a leading man, Hinton carries the film well. As Ian, he’s charming and likable, but Hinton never succumbs to vanity. He’s not afraid to show us that Ian is a little pretentious, scared, weak. That honesty makes him more relatable and interesting. The chemistry he shares with Johanna Sol’s Sofia is excellent and extremely impressive. In a way, I was even more impressed with Sol’s performance as we never actually see her interacting with Hinton. We only hear her voice and see the occasional picture. With only a vocal performance, Sol makes Sofia into a real person with a real inner life.
As you’re reading this, someone just fell in love. They received a response to a message, a Zoom call that wasn’t a trash fire, a notification that someone is thinking about them. On the heels of that is another thought, the realization that simply going on a date isn’t that simple these days. I dearly hope that person sees IRL and realizes that there’s a path. In the weeds of a pandemic, love can still bloom.
*I hoped that later on in the film, the “Derivative” painting would become a massive critical and financial success for Ian, but, alas.
**You know what’s also exceptionally cool about this film? A commitment toward diversity. In its own idiotic and hypocritical way, the entertainment industry is just as resistant to change as your friendly neighborhood Trump rally. The only difference is that Trump rallies are honest about their utter indifference toward giving people a shot who aren’t straight, white dudes. Perez-Selsky and Hinton stepped up and did more than just pay lip service toward diversity. The majority of department heads on IRL were women, as were the majority of the cast and crew. Like I said; exceptionally cool.
***I take my hat off to Perez-Selsky and Hinton for having the self-control not to make a variation of the obvious “My girlfriend lives in Canada” joke. As evidenced here, I certainly don’t have that degree of discipline.