Early on in Michael Mohan’s keenly observed film — in fact, in the first shot — we see our protagonist Sarah hunched over a table in the bookstore she manages, drawing Save the Date cards for her sister Beth’s impending wedding, when the ding of the “Ring Bell for Service” bell pulls her and her attentions up from her sketchbook. More than just slyly introduce the title of the film, this brief scene actually sets up the entire conflict at the heart of Mohan’s film, that of the individual juggling the obligations of work, family, and self.
As played by Lizzy Caplan, Sarah is aloof on top and a jumbled bag of conflicting emotions underneath. Despite personal reservations, she is moving in with her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), who is in a band with her sister’s fiancé Andrew (Martin Starr). Alison Brie plays Sarah’s sister Beth with an air of lightly affected conviction to the superiority of her own judgment; she chalks up Sarah’s reticence to immaturity, telling her, “it’s time to grow up.”
Beth represents two hurdles for Sarah. In addition to being Sarah’s sister, with all of the familial obligations entailed therein, she also embodies the straight-world, grown-up deference to consensus that Sarah, as an artist and as an individual, rails so intently against. “This whole thing feels very… practical,” she laments about moving in with Kevin, with resignation. Beth, on the other hand, is incapable of seeing “practical” as a pejorative; she is fussy and fastidious with her time, her money, and her emotions. To Brie’s credit, Beth never exhibits any malice or indifference — she means well, but has simply allowed the onus of responsibility to rest too strongly upon her. She considers her sacrifices of will a virtue and fails to understand why they’re not appreciated.
Sarah, however, has a distinct point at which she will no longer compromise her instincts, and that point is marriage. She is happy for Beth and Andrew, but is adamant in her own distrust and disbelief in the practice. Despite this, Kevin makes the ill-advised decision to propose to Sarah at the first show of their band’s upcoming tour. When she runs, mortified, out of the club, Kevin is decimated. She moves out and he goes off on tour, but video of his failed proposal has made it to the internet; the constant reminder of his heartbreak is too much for him to bear, and they cancel the remaining shows.
Sarah, meanwhile, has been starting a tentative relationship with Jonathan (Mark Webber), a frequent patron of her bookstore. Jonathan is not an opportunist, and both are aware of the pitfalls of a rebound relationship, but their chemistry is strong. After dinner at Sarah’s apartment, they share a brief first kiss. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” Sarah confides, to which Jonathan gentlemanly responds, “I know, and for that I’m going to leave.”
Beth struggles to see past Sarah’s seeming disregard for Kevin’s feelings, but Andrew more quickly warms to Jonathan. It is Andrew, in fact, who remains the calm center of the film, and Starr’s straightforward, guileless performance anchors the other four performers. He is level-headed and even-tempered, able to read people accurately and willing to do so without letting preconceptions or bias get in the way.
There are two moments in particular in which Beth’s silent repentance betrays her reliance upon Andrew for emotional perspective. The first is early in the film, when she chastises him for making coffee when they have to hurry to the post office to drop off their Save the Date cards. Andrew, a few steps behind, approaches Beth, standing tersely at the intersection outside of their house, waiting to cross the road; he hands her one of two travel mugs, at which she smiles ever so slightly. The second comes much later in the film, after the conflict between Beth and Sarah has reached a fever pitch. Climbing into bed, Andrew — uncharacteristically blunt — says, “The girl that you’re acting like right now is not the fucking girl that I fell in love with.” The look on Beth’s face as she stares at him in the darkness could almost be anger, but as it lingers in silence, we see that any anger she may have is directed at herself.
Mohan and his co-writers Egan Reich and the cartoonist Jeffrey Brown wisely never stray too far from the relationship of the sisters, and the veracity of their interactions is possibly the film’s greatest asset. The dynamic between Brie and Caplan is perfectly rendered with just the right balance of disdain, obligation, and genuine affection; throughout the film I couldn’t help but be reminded of my wife’s relationship with her sister and how true these episodes rang to me.
Brutal emotional honesty is actually an asset that the film in general can claim, offering none of the characters easy answers, nor offering the audience a tidy resolution. Over the past decade, critics have been using the term Mumblecore to describe the work of a small group of filmmakers who have turned no-budget filmmaking into a venue for intimate character studies and relationship dramas. As scene progenitors like Joshua Leonard (with the criminally under-seen and under-rated The Lie) and The Duplass Brothers (with the phenomenal one-two punch of Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home) have been successfully transplanting their DIY aesthetic to major studios, many established actors and filmmakers have ben borrowing from the strengths and lessons of this new style of personal filmmaking. Within this growing genre, Save the Date represents the most honest, unadorned look at what it means to commit to another human being, with fine, sympathetic performances all around and an astute screenplay that respects all of its characters as well as their circumstances equally.