Genre breeds familiarity, and then formula, and then contempt. This is especially true when it comes to romantic comedies, which seemed to suffocate on their own fey cuteness with the disappearance of such seminal directors as Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Until the appearance of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) earlier this century, rom-coms had divided themselves into so-called chick flicks on one side — soft-soap cinematic wish fulfillment — and rude duders on the other, movies best exemplified by the jack-off hijinks of the Farrelly Brothers.
First-time writer, director and actor Alex Richanbach has gone a long way to revive the true spirit of romantic comedies. His debut film, We Are Young, is a wry, smart and, yes, romantic updating of this much-maligned and greatly desecrated form. What this means, in short, is that Richanbach’s movie is dialogue driven, sharply acted and full of moments that are by turns uncomfortably real and deeply touching, and always authentic.
Richanbach, a Eugene native who graduated from the University of Oregon in 2007, describes making We Are Young as a labor of love. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as an assistant with directors David Fincher and Adam McKay. Then he decided to make his own feature. “For me, there was such a desire to express what I felt like I had to express,” Richanbach says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he now works for the website Funny or Die. “We had such a small crew. We were all doing a million things, so you don’t have time to think.”
The result is a truly independent movie, created on a shoestring budget and with a small cast of unknown but extremely talented actors, including Richanbach and Drew Brooks as best friends on the dating scene. One of the real strengths of We Are Young is its fully realized female characters, played by Kiki McCleary, Nathalie Johnson, Zuri Bella and the excellent Dana Salah, who plays opposite Richanbach as the movie’s romantic focus.
Richanbach’s writing is spot-on, and his direction is both elegant and economical. He simply allows the story of the sweet, sometimes difficult romance between the leads to develop, refusing to indulge formula cliches or unlikely situations. We Are Young never strikes a false note, which is amazing for a breed of movies that often survives on treacle and madcap circumstance. By keeping it real, Richanbach arrives at a level of sophistication that is refreshing and surprising.
“The whole point was, there’s enough interesting things that happen with two people just trying to express to each other that they like each other,” he says. “That’s the whole story, just trying to get two people to agree they like each other.”
We Are Young, which debuted on Funny or Die — receiving more than 100,000 views in two weeks and plenty of critical acclaim — opens this week at the Bijou Metro, and Richanbach says he’s thrilled that his movie is getting a homecoming of sorts. “I couldn’t be more excited that it’s playing at the Bijou next month,” he says. “That’s my whole life there, a lot of those experiences that are in the movie are in Eugene.” — Rick Levin
We Are Young opens at the Bijou Metro Friday Nov. 29.