Hannah Marks and Joey Power's "After Everything" was the best film to play in competition at this year's SXSW film festival. It represents a strong debut by the filmmaking duo because it agreeably understands, and never judges, the cash-strapped, NYC-based, millennial couple at the center of its tangled love story. The film is both idealistic and shrewdly cynical; it never necessarily sets for a settled mood because, well, that's now how life works. And yet, for a film dealing with such heavy themes, it manages to be curiously humorful.
Elliot (Jeremy Allen White) meets Mia (Maika Monroe) in, of all places, the subway. He recognizes her from the sandwich shop he works at that she frequents, and asks for her number. She eventually leaves it for him with his co-worker/roommate and they go on a date. Any hint given to us earlier on in the movie that this might be a boy-meets-girl rom-com is quickly evaporated when Elliot goes to the doctor due to pain during sex, and is diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that often develops in children. He soon begins treatment with a pediatric cancer specialist (Marisa Tomei), and yet, with all this cloud of health uncertainty hanging around him, Elliot actually still manages to go out on that date with Mia. Not only that, but he actually tells her the bad news. Surprisingly, Mia is fascinated with Elliot's cancer. She, a bored telemarketer, it turns out, is actually quite obsessed with WebMD, and ends up bonding with him over the treatment regimen that he's undergoing. They form a unique relationship (she even shaves his head right before chemo), and once they find out that the tumor isn't responding to the chemo and Elliot needs surgery, Elliot proposes to Mia.
We start to realize that the cancer diagnosis has brought considerable change to both Mia and Elliot. He has sobered up to the realities of life, with his tinder-swiping partying days all but a thing of the past, whereas she and her, until then, mundane life are reinvigorated with purposeful meaning by her new partner's illness. In other words, they have both found a purpose to their existence. You almost feel like this cancer has to continue for them both to stay in the same emotional bubble that binds them together. In "After Everything," cancer intensifies love due to dependency.
Of course, the wedding turns out to be a terrible idea and after the Elliot is in remission, both souls are left with a rather predictable but looming question: How do we make this marriage work? Being broke and 23-years-old is already a struggle for most millennials, but having to deal with a husband or wife you don't particularly like as well could lead to major struggle.
This setup is pleasantly delivered by Marks and Powers, who show a great knack with their visuals and effortlessly elaborate real-life millennial angst. There's a ton of humanist feeling in their film, whic is part of its immaculate charm.
"After Everything" is a deliberately unformulaic movie. It represents the kind of sobering filmmaking that could be reached when everything just clicks in the creative process. Much of its success is due in part to having filmmakers who are unafraid to show raw emotion on the screen, and at the same time, find a kind of humanism that never makes the proceedings feel contrived and the emotions unearned. It also helps that Monroe (who I will forever love due to her work in “It Follows” and “The Guest”) is the kind of natural actress the movie camera just loves to film. Her performance here feels grounded and unpretentious, and White (mostly known as Lip in Showtime's "Shameless") finds a way to never unnerve or annoy you with the abundant millennial angst his character seems to be filled with. Together, both actors have chemistry and affectionately convey it to us via Marks' and Powers' carefully concocted screenplay.
The film never entraps itself in the clichés that may arise from the "cancer movie" genre or, even, the "cancer comedy," (yes there is such a thing, just watch "50/50," to which this film is vastly superior). The filmmakers would rather bypass any of that conventional wisdom for a more risk-taking approach on love, life, and illness. [B+]