SXSW’s Shotgun is a disarmingly smart indie romance that asks the generation that never grows up to face cancer and marriage.
When I first arrived as a transplant in New York City oh, so many moons ago, I felt like just about every other fresh off-the-boat 20-something walking around. Which is a charitable way of saying I was dead broke. Hence why like so many youngins, finding out how to circumvent a pricy town with a budget of zero became an art form, and one that included walks in the park, subway socializing, and inevitably that free “what else are you going to do on a Saturday?” Staten Island Ferry ride.
So when Jeremy Allen White and Maika Monroe’s characters in Shotgunalso decide to spend their weekend getaway on a free “voyage out to sea” via that odious, Garfield-colored freight, it was clear that first-time directors Hannah Marks and Joey Power were hitting on an authentic aspect of their generation, and what a “bucket list,” as per the film, would look like to a cash strapped 23-year-old. Which makes the indie dramedy’s hook—that these two crazy adult-children are about to have a shotgun wedding because one of them has cancer—all the more strangely quixotic. Not only is this a tale about two strangers rushing into marriage; they’re doing so when they haven’t exactly rushed into adulthood yet.
Shotgun, which just had its world premiere at SXSW last week, is a strong debut by Marks and Powers because of its so disarmingly pleasant countenance, which flies in direct contradiction of its heavy subject matter of illness. Like many an indie romance, it is both comedy and drama, but it is also both idealistic and shrewdly cynical; cheerful and downbeat. It is a film that is happy to wander around its contradictions just as its characters wander between the distance that separates adolescence and maturity, and they do it all while staring down the barrel of something far more existentially threatening in the generation of Tinder than an unexpected pregnancy.
The film begins as such when White’s Elliot rather boldly hits on Monroe’s Mia in a subway platform. He knows he needs to see a doctor, yet this is the girl who he has been watching come into his place of work (a sandwich shop) every day for weeks. While the gambit at least earns him a date, he is also meanwhile quickly ushered in to seeing a specialist to look at a bump on his pelvic region. Soon his worst fear of it being from a night of poor judgement is far exceeded when his physician (Marisa Tomei) confirms that he has a cancer that will need a chemotherapy treatment immediately.
Still, amusingly, when Elliot drops this heavy news on Mia during their first date, the young woman, who is herself only beginning to enter the workforce at a telemarketing firm, views this not as a wearying burden but as an exciting departure from the mundane, and maybe even an aphrodisiac. It turns out that she’s something of a Web MD nut and bonds with Elliot while obsessing over his impending treatments—as well as being the rock he needs to lean on to come out to his parents about the Big C. Somewhat akin to their grandparents’ generation facing down the bullet of World War II, it is during their whirlwind courtship and doctor checkups that Elliot spontaneously pitches they get married before his surgery, and after Mia has shaved his hair. It’s all so sudden, and so sweepingly romantic.
Yet a funny thing happens when surgery is successful: You have to carry on living. And that goes for these two kids who know nothing about each other, save for their broke 23-year-old bucket lists. And now they need to make a marriage work.
The film’s strength comes in turning young romances, particularly for this generation, on its head with such breezy comfort. Generally, love stories about Millennials onscreen, film or premium cable alike, focus on self-absorbed know-it-alls failing to commit to anything but themselves. But Shotguninverses this burgeoning convention by having them, or at least Mia, solely commit herself to another person and deal with a crash course into adulthood. There are scenes of the two of them talking about how marriage and kids are something to do when you’re 30 or even 35. You know, in another universe, right? Yet here they are forced to grow up while they’re each still living with roommates who, in Elliot’s case, want to go to the strip club, or are asking Mia to join them for a binge session of true crime TV specials.
This irony is well played by White and Monroe, who have a definite spark, and are at their strongest when their characters are brought low. It’s in scenes where White cannot talk to his parents, but Monroe cannot stop, that the pairing and film connect… as well as in the third act when, suddenly like Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross at the end of The Graduate staring down the future, things seem a little less rosy.
The film does have the hallmark struggles of many other first-time films. Narratively, the script wobbles a bit in balancing its supporting cast like Elliot’s BFF and “business partner,” Niko (DeRon Horton), and Mia’s roommates who are only slightly more fleshed out than a sketch comedy gag. The film’s use of each party’s parents after the proverbial wedding bells have chimed also leaves something to be desired.
Nevertheless, the film settles on a sweet truthfulness about being forced to grow up too soon, whether via cancer, marriage, or a literal shotgun, and showcases a strong sense of humor and structure by its rookie directors. Whether the characters are smart or naïve, the film knows exactly where it’s going and grabs you with ease for the whole journey.