Rom Com Fest for fans who never stopped be­liev­ing

The Prince George Citizen - - A & E - Lisa BONOS

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?”

She was.

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.

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