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It’s Time for the Return of the Slow Burn Rom-Com

These three phrases come from three different movies, but all convey a similar message: you are the person who knows me better than anyone, and I love you. Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are two of my favorite newer romantic comedies because they take so much care in allowing the main characters to develop a friendship through the somewhat crazy circumstances that bring them together. And the recent arrival of I Want You Back on Prime Video further fuels my belief that I’d like to see more When Harry Met Sally-esque build-up of friendships in romances, making it all the more satisfying when the characters choose each other in the end.

I love Bridgerton as much as the next person, but I’m not usually into romance for steamy sex scenes. Much of the story and conflict surrounding Season 1’s main couple, Simon (Rege-Jean Page) and Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), dealt with sex, how little Daphne knew about it, and how much the two of them eventually got to have. This is all well and good, but sex is not enough by itself to get me invested in a couple. I’m drawn in by the characters’ connection and the slow realization that what they needed was right in front of them all along.

You’re my slow burn.
And yet…
You were never second best.

In I Want You Back, we meet Emma (Jenny Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day), two people who think they’ve found forever with their current partners. Unfortunately for them, their partners can’t say the same, and they both find themselves broken up. After discovering each other crying in the stairwell of their office building, they dub themselves the “Sadness Sisters,” helping each other stay strong enough to keep from calling their exes. Though after learning that those exes both have new partners, they agree to help win them back: Emma by seducing Anne’s (Gina Rodriguez) new boyfriend Logan (Manny Jacinto); and Charlie by first befriending Noah (Scott Eastwood), then finding a way to break him up with his new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo). It’s a comically ridiculous scheme that brings Emma and Peter closer in ways they never would’ve expected – and allows them to see that maybe Noah and Anne weren’t the right people for them after all.

Very early in their relationship, Emma explains to Peter the concept of the “airplane safety mask person,” someone with whom you are so in love that you would put their oxygen mask on before your own in an air emergency. At the start of I Want You Back, Emma believes Noah is that person for her and is adamant that he can’t get away, even as it becomes clear that the two of them were never right for each other. As she spends more time with Peter, eventually getting him and Anne back together, Emma recognizes that she’s developed a more meaningful connection with Peter than she ever had with Noah. Peter is her “slow burn.” In Emma’s words, “Anyone can be a one-night bang. But the slow burn that gets under your skin that’s way more rare. That’s your airplane safety mask person.” Unfortunately, when Peter is more than happy to take Anne back, it seems as though it’s too late for Emma to be with him. Tensions come to a head at Noah and Ginny’s wedding; Peter realizes he’s made a mistake, and he admits to Emma that she is his slow burn. It would’ve been a lot more romantic if the two of them didn’t have to admit then their whole scheme to everyone involved – and find themselves unable to escape, as the wedding is on a boat. Nonetheless, we’re happy to see them figure it out for themselves. 

Charlie Day as Peter and Jenny Slate as Emma in I Want You Back (COURTESY: Amazon Studios)

Set It Up introduces us to Harper (Zoey Deutch), the long-suffering assistant of sports journalist Kirsten (Lucy Liu), who has lost all semblance of a social life due to working nonstop. A chance encounter with Charlie (Glen Powell), who is in a similar situation with his boss Rick (Taye Diggs),  leads the two of them to decide that if they “Cyrano” their bosses into a relationship, their jobs will be easier. They’ll get back to their lives. Their plan ends up working surprisingly well, and along the way, Charlie and Harper become friends in their own right. They quickly come to rely on one another, though Charlie is intent on spending time with his model girlfriend Suze (Joan Smalls), and Harper has her heart set on making things work with “Golf Guy” (Jake Robinson), one of her Tinder matches.

Throughout the movie, it’s clear that Charlie and Harper’s romantic outlooks change. Early on, Charlie scoffs at his roommate Duncan’s (Pete Davidson) belief that his girlfriend should also be his best friend. And Harper’s looking for something deeper than what Golf Guy appears willing to give her – something like what her friend and roommate Becca (Meredith Hagner) have with her fiancé Mike (Jon Rudnitsky). At Becca and Mike’s engagement party, Becca gives a speech explaining that there are so many things Mike does from which she would generally run for the hills – but, despite them, she sticks around, inspiring the first use of this movie’s phrase: “And yet…” Becca’s speech compels Charlie and Harper to list all the things that bother them about each other and are nonetheless able to overcome their friendship—this moment, followed by the two drunkenly climbing Charlie’s fire escape with a pizza, further cement how perfect they are for each other, regardless of how quick they are to run from the truth at the moment. 

After Charlie’s gotten his promotion and is finally able to take Suze out to an expensive dinner, he realizes how much he doesn’t want to be there. In response to Suze claiming her steak is the best meal she’s ever had, Charlie mutters, “The best meal I’ve ever had was a five-dollar pizza thrown up a fire escape.” Obviously, Suze has no idea he’s referring to a moment with Harper, but Charlie understanding that Harper is now the best friend Duncan said a girlfriend should be is a triumph for anyone tuned into the movie. Set It Up ends with Kirsten flinging Harper and Charlie together just as the two of them did to her and Rick. Harper lists all the reasons she should not like Charlie; Charlie, once he catches on, does the same for her; and their lists end the only way they could: with the two of them saying, “And yet…” and choosing to be together.

Glen Powell as Charlie and Zoey Deutch as Harper in Set It Up (COURTESY: Netflix)

In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, we meet Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with romance but scared to experience it for herself. She keeps quiet about her feelings for her sister Margot’s (Janel Parrish) boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard), writing them down in a letter she assumes no one will ever see. That is until her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) mails all of Lara Jean’s love letters, and chaos and shenanigans ensue. In an effort to make sure Josh doesn’t think she still likes him, Lara Jean kisses Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), another recipient of one of her love letters. At first, Peter tries to remind Lara Jean that nothing is going to happen between the two of them…and then he sees how to use the situation to their advantage. They agree to fake a relationship to get Josh off Lara Jean’s back and make Peter’s ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac), jealous. What could possibly go wrong?

As Peter and Lara Jean act out their charade, fooling friends and family, they become friends in their own right. Lara Jean opens up about losing her mom, and Peter acknowledges how his dad leaving to start a new family affected him. At one point, Lara Jean even tells Peter, “It’s actually really nice having someone to talk to about this stuff.” In Peter, she finds an unexpected confidante, and in admitting her feelings for him, she sees she never liked Josh as much as she thought. Throughout the movie, even when they’re not technically together, Peter shows how much he really does care about Lara Jean, whether by leaving her notes every day, spending time with Kitty, or trekking to the Korean grocery store across town to get the yogurt smoothies Lara Jean likes so much. In a bout of anger over a miscommunication about what happened between Gen and Peter on the school ski trip, Lara Jean says she never wants to be second best to Gen, which prompts Peter to declare, tearfully, “You were never second best.” By now, the audience understands this, but it takes Peter actually saying so for Lara Jean to realize it as well.

The fact that Peter and Lara Jean are best friends is part of what makes this teen romance one of my favorite rom-com of all time. They see each other beyond Peter’s lacrosse jock bravado and Lara Jean’s shy girl shield. They come together in unusual circumstances and emerge stronger in the end.

Noah Centineo as Peter Kavinsky and Lana Condor as Lara Jean Covey in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (COURTESY: Netflix)

These three movies depict two people becoming best friends through elaborate (and probably ill-advised) schemes. We watch as the schemes bring them closer together, and they realize that even though they’ve made missteps along the way, they’re with the person who makes them feel the most themselves and without whom they can’t imagine life. Every one of these couples takes me back to When Harry Met Sally in that the basis of their relationship is friendship, not an immediate hook-up or jumping into bed together. They’re all slow burns, cemented by excellent banter: not just loving their partner but liking them as well.

I keep returning to I Want You Back’s repetition of the phrase “slow burn.” Not everyone has the patience for slow burns. I love them. A slow-burn romance gives you all the reasons the main couple is right for each other, not from their physical relationship but in how they show up for one another. This sort of payoff will always be more interesting to me than watching two hot people make out. There’s a time and place for that, but when fun romances are few and far between, I need a reason to root for the couple beyond thinking they look good together.

We talk a lot about offscreen chemistry between pairs these days. For two recent examples, look no further than Twitter’s flip out when Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain were promoting Scenes from a Marriage or the general reaction to Zoë Kravitz and Robert Pattinson’s Entertainment Weekly photoshoot. And there’s more than one way for a pair to have chemistry. When I watched Eternals, I was more drawn to the two or three total minutes of screen time that Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) share than I was to Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), and the most intimate thing Makkari and Druig do is touch foreheads. Chemistry can be simple, shown through quiet actions and genuine care. Remember that you might change your mind the next time you watch a well-crafted slow-burn story if you’re still on the fence about the trope.

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