Cast: Brian Dietzen, Abby Miller, Debra Jo Rupp, Kevin Rankin
Congratulations is revelatory piece of contemporary cinema. But not revelatory is that it offers a revelation – more that it revels in the complexities and often unsatisfying outcomes of interpersonal relationships. Congratulations, much like a lot independent romantic dramedies in recent years, treat its subjected couple and their obstacles not so much realistically – as might be assumed by a cursory surface glance – but pessimistically.
I suppose it’s a reaction to the years of Hollywood claptrap of roses and honeybees that has been stuffed down audiences throats for so long. You know, despite great obstacles, the couple overcome and not only are together, but remain together in wedded bliss long after the credits roll, or we are so to assume. Of course, we who have been out in the world and rubbed up again actual people know it almost never works out that way in real life. It’s a satisfying outcome, yes, but ultimately very unrealistic. Yet I wouldn’t say the approach of a film like Congratulations (the revelatory pessimism) is any more realistic.
On the outset, Congratulations seems like the perfect set-up for a Hollywood rom-com. Jim (Brian Dietzen) and Bridget (Abby Miller) are spending the weekend in Jim’s hometown with his mother. On the way Bridgette rejects Jim’s proposal of marriage. The two shake it off and continue their journey yet when they arrive they are greeted by Jim’s ecstatic mother (Debra Jo Rupp) and high school best friend Casey (Kevin Rankin) who, having been informed of the proposal plans beforehand by Jim, have unfortunately assumed the best. Jim, who hasn’t seen his mother so happy since the death of his father, can’t bring himself to admit to her that Bridget said no. And so the two resolve to pretend they are engaged for the weekend.
The flimsiness of this premise is forgiven by the film’s absolute knowing attitude and consciousness towards what it’s doing. Jim – perhaps a watcher of too many Hollywood happy endings – is hopeful the ordeal will lead to Bridget changing her mind. Yet the scheme, and relationship, fall apart a mere day in.
Every time something that an audience member recognizes as a rom-com trope steps into the story, it is immediately restrained by the films knowing plot and altered to subvert our expectations. This is the sole element that distinguished Congratulations from the glut of other films of its ilk – not the subversion but the conscious acknowledgment of its own derivations.
That’s not to say the film is derivative. And that’s not to say the film is devoid of truth. Much like the frequently mentioned Hollywood rom-coms, Congratulations also contains its moments of bare truth. However it isn’t more truthful simply because it does the opposite of what we are expecting. Congratulations nevertheless offers an angle that is unique and refreshing in the current indie romantic dramedy canon.
Ironically, however, audiences will immediately recognize the aesthetic style of the film, as it follows the established ordinances of INDIE ROMANTIC FILM to a T. Slightly shaky in its photography, muddy in much of its lighting, filmed within actual domestic domiciles. It is a serviceable job done mostly without flourish. Yet when you consider the dreary, predictably open ending, it fits the subject matter well. I suppose there’s a reason this style of editing and photography has attached itself to indie romantic films.
The acting is great aside from a performance by Kevin Rankin, who seems to be on a different frequency than the rest of the cast. In the midst of playing high school best friend Casey, Rankin seems to pursue the role of comedic relief overzealously, distracting from the rest of the film.
Congratulations centers itself around the anxiety twenty-somethings feel when it comes to the rituals and expectations of courtship. At the same time the film seems to be a volley in favor of marriage. At the end of the film, when our two main character have been put through the worst gauntlet imaginable, Bridget rests her head on Jim’s shoulder and asks pitifully, “How did we get here?” And the audience realizes none of it would have happened if she’d just said yes.