There are certain hallmarks of a throwaway made-for-streaming movie, particularly of the Netflix variety – a bland aesthetic of medium close-ups and over-saturated color, lighting somehow both too dim and too bright, cliched location shots, a predictable enough plot aimed for 75% attention on the couch. Not that this is inherently unenjoyable; there are delights to a movie that knows what it is and is game enough to deliver accordingly.
Love at First Sight, in which Haley Lu Richardson and Ben Hardy play two star-crossed strangers who meet-cute on an international flight, is the type of breezy, comfort-food film that should be 90 minutes and, thankfully, is. Directed by Vanessa Caswill from a screenplay by Katie Lovejoy, the film, based on the book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith, doesn’t belabor the point of corny but heartwarming romance. And what it loses to too Netflix and too twee – scenes awash in neon pink light, Jameela Jamil’s winking, pedantic narration of facts, figures and fate – it gains in two winsome, strikingly naturalistic performances from its magnetic leads.
Richardson, perhaps best known for her recent turn as a frazzled and chaotically dressed assistant on the second season of The White Lotus, specializes in a type of warm-blooded, disarming character whose anxieties course just beneath her skin. Her Hadley Sullivan, a 20-year-old, still chaotically dressed NYU student headed to London for her recently divorced dad’s (Rob Delaney) Christmastime wedding, is no different, an easy and charming presence even if she is perennially distracted and has a cosmic inability to charge her phone. At 32, Hardy is slightly less convincing as a 22-year-old college student, though his Oliver is entrancingly quick-witted, vulnerable, and bruised by the return of his mother’s (Sally Phillips) lung cancer after over a decade of remission.
The two meet in a candy-colored version of JFK airport, where a missed flight, a dead phone and a broken seatbelt lead to adjacent seats on a flight to London – Hadley for a wedding she dreads, Oliver for his mother’s memorial with his Shakespeare enthusiast father (Dexter Fletcher) and his eccentric younger brother Luther (Tom Taylor, the film’s jester in a green sprinter van). Bad luck and mistimed near-kisses and mistakes ensue; the two lose track of each other in customs before they can seal the deal over text, leaving serendipity and impulsivity to save the day.
“This isn’t a story about love. This is a story about fate. Or statistics. Really just depends on who you’re talking to,” says Jamil as fate itself in one of her various disguises (fellow JFK traveler, a flight attendant, customs agent, bus driver) poking in on the nascent couple. The framing makes sense, given the source material – compensating for the awful surprise of cancer, Oliver leans heavily on the cold objectivity of statistics. Jamil regularly supplies them, from the number of travelers at JFK on 21 December to the lovers’ respective heights. But the set-up is more grating than charming, especially in contrast to Richardson and Hardy’s lived-in performances of two organically connected people.
That connection – tentative, obvious, filled with pleasurable banter – is the reason to stick with a film that somehow bathes both London and the interior of a plane in pink light, though there are other charms. Namely Delaney, in typical prickly yet sweet mode as a father making up for lost time, and Phillips’s cheeky take on a woman gamely facing death.
Even with the specter of cancer, Love at First Sight isn’t a tear-jerker, rather a lump in the throat at best, and always watchable whenever Richardson or Hardy are pining on screen; the two make falling in love, losing each other, first fight and making up within 24 hours seem perfectly reasonable and emotionally obvious, if admittedly (to themselves and others) a little crazy. But isn’t that what a movie is for? For all its production flaws, Love at First Sight aims at the part of the human brain that longs for sweeping romance and a good meet-cute story. It misses plenty, but when it hits – a contained timeline, two capable leads shouldering all the charisma – it strikes the mark.
Love at First Sight is out on Netflix on 15 September