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Review

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between (2022)

Let's just call it "smell you later"

The eternal struggle of the romcom: How to feel at least a little bit fresh while still checking all of the crucial boxes that viewers expect. Some movie fans adore the genre for its reliable framework; others can’t stand it for telling the same cheesy story every time. I am personally quite torn on the matter: I love little “happily ever afters” and great cast chemistry and lightweight vibes that are associated with the genre, but resent the half-assed feeling of a story that’s too formulaic.

This is just as much of a problem in books as it is in movies. Back when I read a lot more novels in the mid 2010s, I faced this problem as well; it is, in fact, even more of a problem in the lit business, where “romance novels” form an entire industry that is deeply bound to tropes and tightly-enforced subgenre expectations. Finding a book that is smart yet still cozy and breezy and familiar is tough!

But I learned I could always rely on Jennifer E. Smith: her adorable teen romcoms are always well-fleshed and terrifically crafted, with enough brains and minor variations on cliches to make the experience fresh rather than phoned in. I read her This is What Happy Looks Like, You Are Here, and The Geography of You and Me, and loved each one: comfort reads that don’t talk down to you.

Thus, I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood never managed to release a film based on her books: Her style is perfect for screenplay adaptation, neither too interior or literary to make for a tough transition to screen, nor too pat and streamlined to feel uncinematic. As a seasoned author, she has repeatedly solved the “romcom struggle” and put it on a platter if only Hollywood would come asking.

It took more than a decade since I first sat down with one of her books, but 2022 and 2023 finally delivered: We’ve been gifted two Jennifer E. Smith adaptations in consecutive years that prove my exact point. No one will accuse either this film or Love at First Sight of being groundbreaking cinema, yet both offer more charms and robust storytelling than your typical streaming teen romcom fare.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between is based on a 2015 book of the same name by Smith. Clare (Talia Ryder) is the daughter of former high school sweethearts who split acrimoniously after graduation and her birth, and thus she vows to leave high school with no strings attached, lest she recreate her parents’ sad romantic life. Before senior year, though, she meets Aidan (Jordan Fisher), and the two quickly connect. But before they get together, Clare makes them vow they break up before she leaves for college so she can have a clean break.

After this prelude, the film jumps ahead to graduation, nearly a year later. The rest of the film covers Clare and Aidan’s “breakup date” — the last outing together before they fulfill their promise to split before college. Aidan, a big-hearted romantic with a predilection for grand gestures in contrast to Clare’s pragmatic streak, plans a perfect final date that pulls together memories from their year together.

Thus, we witness not only the climactic date itself, but flashbacks to important moments in their relationship arc: first kisses and “I love yous” and fights and all that jazz. These memories run parallel to the tension of whether Clare and Aidan will follow through on their breakup promise, or decide to stick it out in the name of love.

It’s a terrific narrative structure because it allows us to witness the important moments of the relationship in quick snapshots, while still providing a backbone for cohesive romantic conflict. The story moves quickly: we fill in the blanks by seeing how Clare and Aidan interact in the present day with the payoff of their fully-formed relationship. (The film clocks in at 82 minutes, so it wasn’t going to be particularly draggy either way.)

The film, alas, leans on this structure as a storytelling mechanism perhaps too much. In place of proper character development we have a bunch of sweet vignettes. These build a lot of chemistry — and boy do Ryder and Fisher seem believable as a couple — but not much in the way of character depth. This makes it a sweet romantic tone poem more than a rich story: A solid percentage of the film is made up of montages of the couple falling in love, the whole film so over-scored with indie pop that it sometimes feels like a string of music videos.

There’s also some depth lost in the translation from book to screen: The leads’ personalities are not quite sharp enough for them to leave a strong impression. Both are described as over-planners in different ways, but the writing isn’t quite rich enough for this nuance to click, and the characters end up a bit fuzzy. Side characters, meanwhile, aren’t defined enough for their small side plots to have much meat. (At one point one side character hooks up with the sister of another side character, and I was clueless whether we’d even met the sister before that scene.)

Nonetheless, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between left me with a huge smile and warm fuzzies. I just love the leads and their chemistry so much. And the story brilliantly captures the complex emotions and contradictions of high school graduation: the beginning of adulthood and the end of childhood intersecting, our identities made up of everything in between.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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