It might be quite certain that the contemporary rom-com genre is far from its heyday. One simple and explicit reason for this is that most of its films follow a very specific set of conventions, playing it overly safe, as manifested both in terms of clichéd screenwriting and directing that relies on formulaic and frequently re-articulated modes of expression. Sara Zandieh’s The Other Zoey, though, may be a peculiar case even in this manner. Based on Matthew Tabak’s screenplay, the film depicts the story of titular heroine, Zoey (Josephine Langford), a bright and ambitious computer major at the Queens University of Charlotte who’s introduced right away as a loveless cynic. For the egghead Zoey, who views Valentine’s Day as nothing more than a capitalistic mechanism in modern society and its rom-com flicks as unrealistic nonsense, any idea of soulmates or love at first sight is absurd; according to her obsessively analytical mind, a successful relationship is something that can be pre-determined based on algorithms and interpersonal compatibility. She’s even designed an unpopular matchmaking app that doesn’t impress her peers at all. It’s pretty obvious, then, that The Other Zoey will follow a certain narrative to make her stubborn lead character re-evaluate her “wrong” assumptions. Thus, in a worn-out love triangle situation, Zoey encounters two completely different types of guys. One is Zach (Drew Starkey), the soccer star of the university and a pragmatic character who stands in contrast to her. The other is Miles (Archie Renaux), an analytical MIT grad student who shares many similarities with Zoey, especially in his doubts about romantic love.
As the story unfolds, The Other Zoey manifests many similarities and overlaps with other better-known films of its ilk. For example, in a transitional scene, Zoey runs after Zach to return his credit card, which he forgot upon his leaving a bookstore, causing his bike to get hit by a car — a benign accident that results in short-term amnesia and makes Zach mistakenly take Zoey as his girlfriend (Maggie Thurmon), also named Zoey. This concept immediately makes us think of Falling for Christmas, but somewhat in reverse. Indeed, our Zoey doesn’t reveal her true identity, since she realizes that her mysterious prince charming Miles is, in fact, Zach’s cousin; instead, she manages to accompany both guys along with Zach’s family on their skiing vacation. Zoey also consults with her flatmate and bestie Elle (Mallori Johnson), whose supporting role as confidant expresses another formulaic tic that has designated countless analogous and subsidiary characters, most recently that of Dan Levy in Happiest Season.
But if The Other Zoey’s simplistically plain narrative, conventionally ripped-off ideas, and rather hasty pacing are nothing new in themselves, what stands out in Zandieh’s film is the way she manages to consciously filter many of these nods and clichés through her undeniable personal love and appreciation for the genre. Meaning this: it’s as if the film, unlike its main character, never intends to conceal its true identity and plays out intentionally as a small and humble intergenerational homage to the history of rom-com. It’s an odd mix of the genre’s classic stereotypes with the mumblecore’s nonchalant performances and natural character arcs, sprinkled with some of Hallmark’s half-baked tweeness. If The Other Zoey — especially during its centerpiece scenes at the ski lodge, where Langford and Starkey inspire undeniable chemistry — still manages to shape a sweet and amicable atmosphere beyond merely gorgeous set designs, colorfully chic outfits, and uplifting North Carolinian locations, it’s because it succeeds in rendering the mood, flair, and flavor of those 90s and early aughts teen-flicks commensurate with modern-day ambiance. Considering the on-screen presence of Langford — whose appearance and vibe embodies some amalgamation of Reese Whiterspoon’s cordiality, Alicia Silverstone’s naughtiness, and Brittany Murphy’s playfulness — alongside how Zach’s cute and smart little sister Avery (Olive Abercrombie) proves reminiscent of young Dakota Fanning in Uptown Girl, we can respect Zandieh’s awareness about how her work is in direct dialogue and response to The Other Zoey’s precedents (this is not to mention the obvious cameo presences of Heather Graham and Andie MacDowell). In this fashion, the film’s not insignificant (but fortunately very sparse) failures don’t completely overshadow it. Just like its protagonist, The Other Zoey finds itself in a complicated position: it’s a work that tries to function on pre-calculated compatibilities with the genre, yet simultaneously stems from the director’s respectably personal soft spot and trust in re-capturing the feel-good mood and beguiling beauty of romantic yesteryear. And it’s essentially because of this latter aspect that the film proves mildly impressive.
DIRECTOR: Sara Zandieh; CAST: Josephine Langford, Drew Starkey, Archie Renaux; DISTRIBUTOR: Brainstorm Media; IN THEATERS: October 20; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 26 min.