There’s been a recent resurgence of romcoms in the mainstream, from big budget studio outings like Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix backed breakouts like Set it Up – but if you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention to this very website, you’ll know the classic romcom formula has been thriving in low budget LGBTQ cinema even as its gone out of fashion elsewhere. As the world starts to fall back in love with the cliches of the genre again, indie directors are trying to put their own distinctive stamps on a familiar formula, tipping a hat to classic romcoms whilst exploring more complicated romances that don’t fit as easily into narrative conventions.
From Zero to I Love You, the sophomore film from writer/director Doug Spearman which is playing at this year’s BFI Flare, is one such film, chronicling the rocky, divergent paths in life taken by a couple whose brief fling initially ends with disappointment. For a genre largely reviled for its low intellect, the film largely works because it puts its faith in the intelligence of its audience, allowing them the chance to root for a relationship while acknowledging the destructive paths that will need to be taken in order for that to be achieved. It’s a fairytale romance, but with added obstacles that have major ramifications, from family lives to imminent nuptials, that have to be shattered in order for a love to succeed. It’s the simplicity of a classic whirlwind romance complicated by the sheer complexities of the people in love, and the reckless ways they demean their domestic lives to get closer to the thing they want.
Peter (Darryl Stephens) has a bad habit – his fear of commitment has led to him to fall into a string of affairs with closeted married men, much to the irritation of his family and friends. The latest person he starts an affair with is Jack (Scott Bailey), a married father of two. Their affair sparks something in Jack, and he starts confiding in those close to him that he’s gay, and developing feelings for Peter. The problem is that his coming out is overshadowed by Peter falling in love with somebody else, leaving Jack to stay in the closet, something which has disastrous consequences for the domestic bliss of both parties.
Romantic stories always have obstacles in the way of the two leads getting together, but From Zero to I Love You is one of the rare cases of the film piling these up to the extent that it’s never a given that the pair will have a happily ever after. And even if that were to be the case, there is never a sense that the problems will be easily solved by the pair getting together – if anything, the way the drama unfolds, there are frequent suggestions that it would cause more harm than it would solve. Through it all, the collateral damage of this affair is stated clearly, never hiding or excusing the behaviour of either character, but presenting them with all their flaws in clear sight, asking you to root for them regardless.
It’s to the director’s credit that this is an easier task than this review makes it sound. Jack and Peter are both deeply flawed, but when both are risking their contented relationships by having a string of affairs to fill the void of their own affair, it’s clear that opening up and getting together may be the only thing to stop them wandering further down the path of self destruction, taking with them everything in their orbit. They’re not easy people to like, and when their partners are portrayed so sympathetically, their behaviour is even more difficult to excuse. But Spearman doesn’t appear to be interested in letting them off the hook, and his film is all the more satisfying due to how it dwells on these issues, adding stakes to the relationship a similar romcom would likely shy away from.
From Zero to I Love You is refreshing in its complications, making the audience root for the couple to get together while never shying away from showing all the heartbreak and damage that would occur would this to happen. It’s that rare thing – a high stakes romcom.