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Better Than Sex

Stay-the-night-movie-review-andrea-bang-joe-scarpellino
SXSW

MOVIE REVIEW
Stay the Night (2022)

It’s a very specific category of romantic movie: A cute couple spend a night walking around a city, talking and having random encounters, instead of in bed together. The alpha and omega of this category is obviously “Before Sunrise,” which “Stay the Night” acknowledges in a wordless sequence toward the end, but other movies have worked different angles to keep the couples apart: In “Before We Go” one of them was married, and in “Medicine for Melancholy” the time together follows the one-night stand. In this new Canadian entrant for this category, as shown at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, writer-director Renuka Jeyapalan drops the cute couple in bed almost immediately, before immediately vaulting them right back out the door. It’s a bold choice but with this cast it works perfectly.

They meet cute in a Toronto bar neither particularly wish to be in. Human resources professional Grace (Andrea Bang) has been dragged out after a bad day at work by her best friend/roommate Joni (Humberly González), who quickly ditches her to hook up with a random. Pro-hockey player Carter (Joe Scarpellino) is also reeling from some bad work news and looking to drown his sorrows while he’s stuck in town overnight. If the nice receptionist from his hotel (Kalinka Petrie) suddenly remembers she has a boyfriend, then he’ll talk to the girl on the next bar stool. Grace doesn’t recognize him, which appeals, but everyone else in the bar knows who he is. When some douchey sports fans start a scene, Grace’s cab is the obvious place for Carter to hide; and since Joni is bogarting Grace’s apartment, Carter’s hotel suite is the obvious place for them to go. One thing swiftly leads to another until Grace drops a bombshell and flees in tears.

It’s really quite a bombshell; and for the movie to work two things have to be believable: The guy is decent and understanding; and the girl with a secret that size is normal and attractive. The whole movie hangs on when Carter chases after Grace, politely reminds her her apartment is occupied and offers to buy her a drink to pass the time until she can go home. It’s essential he is kind and lonely instead of a meathead poon hound, and just as essential she is anxious and lonely instead of a misguided tease. Thankfully Ms. Bang and Mr. Scarpellino absolutely nail it – take a bow, casting director Larissa Mair. Their conversation in the bar, where Grace explains herself and Carter listens closely instead of making it all about him, is a charming masterclass in character development and interpersonal chemistry. It turns out Carter and Grace are equally intelligent and curious about the world, which is completely unexpected to both of them. That means the script’s maneuvers to keep them out of bed but still together don’t feel forced. It helps that Carter doesn’t know the city so Grace must take the lead as they keep talking. Among other places, they go to a Korean restaurant, a dive bar at the back of an otherwise closed shopping arcade and a late-night outdoor skating rink, analyzing their problems and slowly relaxing with each other. Tiffany Beaudin’s editing of Conor Fisher’s night-time cinematography knows how to linger, when to focus on their faces and when to emphasize the space – or lack of – between them. They are so good together a surprise encounter with Grace’s work crush Roshan (Raymond Ablack) isn’t even awkward – Grace knowing someone famous puts her up in Roshan’s estimation; and Carter’s empathy for Grace’s feelings puts him up in everyone else’s.

You can tell a woman wrote the script: There is no negging as they hesitantly circle toward one another; and the finale relies on Carter’s remembering something Grace said in passing early on. (Also his use of jersey numbers as a mnemonic device, a trick true sports fans know all about but is rarely shown on screen.) “Stay the Night” delivers what a lot of women are secretly hoping for in a romance – a man who doesn’t mind passing up a chance for sex because he finds you so damn interesting. The thoughtfulness Carter puts on display as he opens up with Grace is extremely compelling; and Mr. Scarpellino has a quiet sensitivity for others that a lot of dudes learn to hide. Ms. Bang has the harder job; Grace’s secret is very close to being an unpleasant stereotype, but it’s redeemed by the strong emphasis on her nonjudgmental ride-or-die friendship with Joni and Ms. Bang’s own open-faced honesty. By the end you can almost pretend it doesn’t matter whether or not the cute couple gets it together. Watching them figure themselves and each other out over the course of an evening is more than enough.

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