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This summer’s movies are all about love

Loneliness, longing, and love in the third pandemic summer.

A triptych with three images: an older woman looking into the distance, a virtual reality avatar of a girl with pink hair, and an animated shell sitting on a remote control.
From left: Dale Dickey in A Love Song, Jenny in We Met in Virtual Reality, and Marcel in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Bleecker Street/HBO Films/A24
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I look back on the rom-coms of my youth with fondness now, but it’s hard to deny their everlasting samey-sameness. I do mean the plots, sort of; the romantic comedy takes a well-worn path, and that’s part of its charm. But mostly what I mean is the faces. They’re all pretty career women who are secretly quirky, or a mess, or need to be taken down a peg, and slightly roguish or maybe awkward men. Not only are they always conventionally attractive, but they’re often the same exact people.

Which worked well enough for the time. But different times demand different measures. And in this summer’s crop of movies about love — not romantic comedies, to be sure, but often something better — new kinds of stories are breaking through.

The summer movie season started (early) with a bang: Everything Everywhere All At Once, a maximalist multiverse comedy about a woman named Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) who desperately wants to reconnect with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu). It’s not only about parents and children — Evelyn’s marriage is disintegrating, and her adventures across universes extend to her hapless but sweet husband (Ke Huy Quan). Yet, while coverage of the film’s charm to audiences also focused on the multiverse aspect (likely thanks to the film’s executive producers, MCU darlings Joe and Anthony Russo), the real appeal had little to do with the situation in which the characters found themselves. It was the story — losing and finding love in one’s own family, in this case a distinctly Asian one — that left audiences weeping and coming back for more.

Evelyn stands in between her daughter, Joy, and forces who would like to kill her, as her husband Waymond also looks on.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is about the bonds between family that extend across universes.

But thankfully, Everything Everywhere All At Once has been far from the end of the summer of (movies about) love. Looking at the list, it becomes clear that almost all of them have a few things in common. They’re not just movies about romance or even familial love. They’re about loneliness. And they feature the kind of characters who never had a shot in the rom-com age.

Take Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, for instance. Based on the viral YouTube shorts of a decade ago, the feature is about an inch-high shell named Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) who lives a lonely life with his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) in a largely vacant Airbnb. A filmmaker named Dean — mostly unglimpsed, but based on and played by writer-director Dean Fleischer-Camp — moves into the house after separating from his wife and meets Marcel, who’s the perfect subject for a documentary. So they start filming together.

Marcel has lost his family, and is resigned to never finding them again. By the time we finally meet them, we realize Marcel has extended his definition of “family” far past biology. To Marcel, “family” means community, which means Dean is part of it too. That Fleischer-Camp and Slate re-teamed to tell Marcel’s story, which they first told when romantically involved, but broke up years ago, adds levels of poignancy to the film. Love is love even when it evolves into something nobody anticipated.

Two little shells in a garden.
Marcel and Nana Connie in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.

Other movies have homed in on loneliness as they tell their love stories. There was Brian and Charles (June 17), a kind of warmly comedic take on Frankenstein in which an eccentric inventor in a tiny English village accidentally invents a robot that becomes his best friend and, eventually, his family. And Girl Picture (August 12) explores the experience of young, lonely teenage girls who have only one another as they try to navigate lives with unreliable parents and a confusing world.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Crimes of the Future (June 3), David Cronenberg’s deeply weird but oddly stirring look at the ways people connect in an imagined, post-human, dystopic future, one in which our fascination with the inside of one another’s bodies fuels something deeper. Even Flux Gourmet (June 24), an intensely weird movie about an art retreat for “culinary performance artists,” dips into the strange ways we connect and find one another when we’re overcoming our loneliness.

Two of the summer’s best offerings, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (June 17) and A Love Song (July 29) look at love through the lens of loneliness and aging, in a way that feels starkly different from the rom-coms of yore. In the former, actress Emma Thompson plays a widow who hires a young, hot sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to … well, to be honest, she’s not sure what she wants him to do, but she knows she can’t go on feeling the way she does. Thompson, who is 63, has talked openly about how playing the part meant coming to terms with her own aging body, with looking at it and letting it be seen on screen. It’s a still-unusual and wonderfully refreshing role from a brilliant actress.

A middle aged-man and woman sit on the ground, a trailer visible in the background.
Wes Studi and Dale Dickey in A Love Song.
Bleecker Street

And it’s echoed in A Love Song, tonally a very different film but not all that different when it’s boiled down to its essence. The incredible (and incredibly underused) actress Dale Dickey plays Faye, a loner, who’s a traveler living in a neat trailer. She hangs out in a campground, quietly mourning her late husband and awaiting the possible arrival of her old flame Lito (Wes Studi), who may or may not come to see her. Max Walker-Silverman wrote and directed the film, which plays like a fable or a folk song. It’s glorious to see Dickey and Studi — both of whom are among their generation’s finest, and have the kind of faces you’d never see in lead romantic roles in a Nancy Meyers film — get to bring the story to life. Love is hard, and confusing, and ever-changing. And telling the stories of late-in-life love gives us different ways to think about it.

Just to show there’s a wealth of stories to tell across the spectrum, two of the year’s best documentaries show love from the past and what feels like the future. The latter is We Met in Virtual Reality (July 27), a vérité documentary shot entirely inside the virtual reality platform VRChat. Director Joe Hunting interviews and follows (again, inside the platform) several groups of people, many of whom felt profoundly disconnected and isolated (especially in the early months of the pandemic) before finding community on the platform. In addition to classes and communities that have formed, he talks with friends and romantically involved couples who met on the platform and found that connections made in virtual space can translate far beyond pixels.

Two virtual reality avatars stand next to one another, their arms around one another affectionately.
Space Bunny and Toaster, two participants in We Met in Virtual Reality, talk about their relationship.
HBO Films

On the flip side is Fire of Love (July 6), which uses archival footage from the 1960s and 1970s to tell the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, married volcanologists — a pair of loners — who died in a volcanic eruption in 1991. Knowing this brings a sweet sadness to the film, which director Sara Dosa crafts into a tale of love. It’s not just about their relationship, though; it’s about how deeply they loved volcanoes, and how that love slowly grew into a love for humanity.

Is it any wonder that these sorts of movies are emerging in the third summer after an isolating pandemic? It’s been long enough now that pretty much any new movie you might see was shot, and maybe written, under pandemic conditions. Love, desire, wistfulness, isolation, yearning — they’re all emotions that people experienced under new circumstances and in new ways over the past several years. Artists often find themselves tasked with capturing the zeitgeist (the vibes, if you will) of the culture around them.

Most of these movies are pretty funny, but you couldn’t classify them as romantic comedies; those films usually focused on a narrow slice of love, the bit with the butterflies and the meet-cutes and the misunderstandings and the final kiss that says everything will be all right for these two pretty people. But deeper, broader stories bring a bigger context to love, in a world where hanging onto one another sometimes feels like all we have. It’s okay to be carried away by the fantasy of love, of course. But the movies that ground us in what it is to be a part of a community, to find ourselves inside others’ hearts, to learn from love how to turn outward — those are the ones that I hope last long beyond this moment.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is available to rent and own on digital platforms. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is playing in theaters. Brian and Charles is available to purchase on digital platforms. Girl Picture will open in theaters on August 12. Crimes of the Future is available to own on digital platforms. Flux Gourmet is available to rent and own on digital platforms. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is streaming on Hulu. A Love Song is playing in theaters. We Met in Virtual Reality is streaming on HBO Max. Fire of Love is playing in theaters.