Rom Com Fest for fans who never stopped believing
LOS ANGELES — If Miraya Berke’s life were a romantic comedy, it would begin with her 15-year-old self writing a letter to her high school crush, 17-year-old Matt DeMartini, proclaiming that he missed his chance to date her.
They’d had a wonderful two years cementing a friendship, she’d write, sharing a closeness that she hoped would have blossomed into a relationship. They’d bonded while making balloon arches in the early mornings as part of their student government duties and while practicing with the mock-trial team in the afternoons. On good days, he would offer her a ride home from school. On the best days, they would share a kiss.
But DeMartini was often pining for someone else, so he and Berke never made it out of friend territory. If the camera had captured them at prom – every teenage rom-com has a prom! – viewers would have seen DeMartini and Berke in the same group of dancegoers but not on each other’s arms. He invited someone else who wasn’t all that into him and asked one of his friends to be Berke’s date. The audience would sigh over that universal pain of a first unrequited love.
Before DeMartini headed to his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, Berke had to tell him how she felt. That letter, which she delivered in 2006, ended with a bold prediction: “Sometime you’ll finally realize what you missed out on and then maybe you will regret it.”
Thirteen years later, if that same camera were to catch up with a grown-up Berke, it would find the 29-year-old buzzing around the Downtown Independent theatre, wearing a red, flowy Kate Spade dress smattered with hearts, posing on the pink carpet at the first-ever Rom Com Fest. She created this weekend-long event to celebrate a movie genre that is often beloved for being relatable and uplifting while criticized for being cliched, far-fetched and retrograde. Berke and the hundreds of other wide-eyed Nora Ephron disciples here acknowledge that the classics do not age well, but they adore these films anyway. Berke has long been a fan of rom-coms, and while devouring new ones on Netflix recently, she wondered: Why is this genre so rarely featured in film festivals? A movie buff and event planner, Berke decided to curate her own dream version of Sundance.
Over a weekend in late June, hopeless romantics in their 20s to 40s pack anniversary screenings of 1999 favorites Never Been Kissed and 10 Things I Hate About You, amid several new independent films. I Heart You balloons sway in the wind just outside the theatre. Inside, there are sweets – mochi, Ring Pops, buckets of fruity, fizzy drinks promising zero calories. Even the restroom looks weddingshower-ready.
The seats are filled with women who dream of being the next Ali Wong or Candace Bushnell. Women who spent their teens chasing after boys and are spending their 20s chasing after girls.
Watching these movies is akin to mainlining hope into your brain.
They’re certainly not perfect when viewed in the #MeToo era. If a squirm had a sound, it would be an uncomfortable groan-laugh heard throughout the sold-out screening of Never Been Kissed. In the 1999 film, Drew Barrymore’s character Josie Geller is a journalist posing as a high school student to get a juicy story. She falls for her teacher, and he clearly likes her back.
In 2019, the movie is totally creepy, but fans still enjoy it.
After the credits roll, Rachel Bloom, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator, begins a question-and-answer session by apologizing for picking Never Been Kissed to screen. She hadn’t seen the film in about a decade, she says, and she had forgotten about the hints of pedophilia. However, Bloom still loves this film for the attention it gives to teenage dorks. Like many of the women in the audience, Bloom connected with these films because they made her feel less alone.
“For so long, these types of movies were the only things being made for women,” Bloom continues.
“And I think that we’re now really questioning: What art have we kind of pushed aside in a different category that we can now elevate?”
Which is exactly what this festival is aiming for. Many of the weekend’s newer independent films show how the genre is changing. They include characters navigating queer, polyamorous relationships. They don’t always end with a ring or even a kiss. One of the festival favourites, In Reality, centres on a woman’s quest to get over a breakup and find happiness in herself – a time-tested rom-com theme, but this time without the man.
Which brings us back to Berke’s own love story.
“We ended up going to the same college,” she adds, “and a few times he tried to make out with me. But I always shot him down, told him he had missed his chance.”
The audience whoops and cheers in support of their heroine. But she continues, noting that she and DeMartini stayed in touch over the years. One night, 11 years after she wrote that letter, things seemed flirtier than usual. They were out for a fancy dinner in Los Angeles when DeMartini asked Berke if she would like to answer the 36 questions to fall in love, which are designed to increase the intimacy between two people. When prompted to share a regret, Berke said: “One of my biggest regrets was that nothing had ever happened between us.”
This time, DeMartini was more mature, “healthy single” as he puts it, rather than “rebound single,” as he had often been.
DeMartini leaned in for a kiss. Berke kissed back.
He was living in Oakland at the time and Berke was living in New York. They met for weekends in New Orleans and Florida. A few months in, DeMartini asked a question that Berke had waited a long time to hear: “Are you my girlfriend?”
And as she told an abridged version of this story onstage, DeMartini recorded her performance, beaming from the sidelines. They’ve been together for three years and now live in Oakland. Berke says she has “been living in my own little rom-com as my high school crush came to real life.”
In the green room on the festival’s final day, DeMartini says many people have asked why he didn’t propose that weekend. He could have swooped in during Berke’s Mortified performance.
If it were 1999, he might have. But DeMartini’s answer reflects a deep understanding of how romcoms, and actual relationships, are evolving. He’d thought about proposing. But it wasn’t the right time.
“I don’t want to undermine her big event,” he said.
“That should be about the two of us.”
Miraya Berke is the creator of Rom Com Fest, which is a three-day event to celebrate love through film screenings, panel discussions and a comedy show.