If there is one rule by which every romance film is compelled to obey, it’s the water rule. Once one character splashes another with water or pushes another into a pool, the two characters involved are thereby obligated by cinematic law to fall in love.
This is, of course, not actually a law, but an artificial convention, like countdown timers stopping with one second left or characters crying without wiping away their tears. Giving in to conventions like this can be campy fun, but for On Again Off Again, directed by Arsalan Shirazi and Biko Franklin, it’s indicative of a more significant issue. At the risk of being reductionist, movies centered around romance sink or swim based on two factors: authenticity and nuance. This movie struggles with both from the very beginning.
At a party where everyone has fractured into small clusters, wherein they hold a glass and engage in the most mindless of small talk, Sami (Arsalan Shirazi) and Yasmine (Samantha Spatari) are both wallflowers. Eventually, they lock eyes and send each other the appropriate body language, which signals to Sami that it is safe to approach. It’s at this early stage where the movie makes its first missteps in establishing the relationship that the entire film depends on. There’s no sign that Sami and Yasmine have any connection whatsoever, other than they’re both physically attracted to one another. Their initial interaction is so obviously shallow, as they engage in the type of mawkish, unnatural flirting where both parties fall into the roles expected of them, that the eventual implosion of their relationship feels overdue, not tragic, as the movie attempts to frame it.
“…they lock eyes and send each other the appropriate body language, which signals…it is safe to approach.”
Before that happens, however, the good times roll as Sami and Yasmine spend time with friends and go on long walks—everything’s sunshine, lollipops, and dramatically slow disrobing. Again, all of this rings false. The dialogue between Sami and Yasmine is so hollow and pointless that the only reason you might imagine them being perfect for one another is that they’re the two most boring people on the planet. I’m no “Dear Abby,” but don’t meaningful relationships need to have some kind of intellectual synergy to sustain themselves as the initial passion begins to wane? Imagine if the letters between John and Abigail Adams consisted only of them discussing the merits of men wearing shorts. “And then Jefferson was, like, bro, I’m just going to tell you, like, I’m not feeling it.” To which Abigail writes back, “I love that your friend said that.” Who said conversation is a lost art?
All of this would be rendered moot if that was the movie’s point: to chronicle the house of cards that is puppy love. Instead, we’re led to believe that this relationship is so powerful, it will reverberate throughout the characters’ entire lives. Let me play devil’s advocate for a second time. The vacuous nature of the dialogue could be chalked up to naturalism, as this is most definitely how most twenty-somethings speak to each other. But naturalism is too unpalatable an ingredient to be applied in its purest form. Look at a movie like John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, which does it right. It’s stylistically naturalistic, as the characters and dialogue feel unpolished, yet they’re incredibly polished.
Inauthentic and unnuanced, On Again Off Again feels like a Hallmark card come to life. Its broad strokes of emotion will only affect those most susceptible to the rise and fall of a romantic relationship. If you don’t happen to keep a box of tissues beside your popcorn bowl, your time is better spent elsewhere.
On Again Off Again (2016) Directed by Arsalan Shirazi and Biko Franklin. Written by Arsalan Shirazi and Biko Franklin. Starring Arsalan Shirazi, Samantha Spatari, Charlie Hamilton, Jacqui Skeete, Stephne Halliburn, Melinda Michael, Hugo M. Alves.
3 out of 10