Friendship can be the most difficult kind of love, because you don’t go to bed with them every night. At least that is what Susanna Fogel posits in her first feature, Life Partners. The sweet and savvy story about the strongest of connections recently had its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, but it will have a longer life in the hearts of anyone who has ever had (or lost) a true friend.
As the ballad of Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs), Life Partners’ protagonists share two things in common: they both love Top Model and the longest relationship either’s been in is their friendship. At the age of 29, Paige enjoys a budding career in the legal world that she has to constantly downplay around her special BFF, a slacker receptionist in a dead-end job pretending that she’s still a musician oh-so-many years after college. Sasha is also a lesbian, a potentially salacious avenue for storytelling that Fogel blessedly chooses not to exploit for dime novel melodrama and titillation between her two stars. No, the rift between these besties inevitably comes in the form of a man named Tim (Adam Brody) who slowly, awkwardly, but ever persistently sweeps Paige off her feet just before she turns 30.
The obvious conflict that ensues is Sasha being displaced in her best friend’s life by one of growing worth in blandly likable Tim, a movie-quoting golfer with a 9-to-5 job not even worth repeating for the filmmakers. This picture clearly belongs to threatened Sasha, and Meester relishes the long overdue center stage by finding grace and poise in the consistently incredulous and indignant.
The story of friends growing apart, especially when one of them gets engaged or married, is a well-worn narrative thread, but Life Partners finds a certain irresistibility in it thanks to the chemistry between Meester and Jacobs. The stars of the movie radiate affection for one another, making it believable that these two polar opposites have stayed close since girlhood. This relation is grounded in unspoken but telling design that observes them shedding the uncomfortable vices of adulthood whenever they get together just amongst themselves. In particular for Sasha’s 29th birthday, their idea of fun is to rent out a motel room with a pool and to put cell phones away for board games and excessive wine drinking (the epitome of adolescence).
Sadly for Sasha, she remains in her rut looking back at her early 20s with envy while Paige’s life continues to move forward in a way that will end with Sasha no longer being the first person Paige talks to everyday and the last every evening. Their friendship has provided a shelter of co-dependency that has prevented them from going out in the dating world, but that unused guitar looks truly desperate when that is all Sasha has for company each night.
Branching further out into Sasha’s life beyond this connection, however, can be a mixed bag. Fogel explores the lesbian lifestyle in a refreshing and original way for non-practitioners, showing different group activities, bars, and meet-ups where couples connect and fall-off like an all-girl high school with all the gossip and watchful eyes that entails. However, both Sasha’s friends and her mutually exclusive lovers—played by a rotating cast of well-known actresses including Gabourey Sidibe, Kate McKinnon, Abby Elliot, and Beth Dover—contribute mostly formulaic diversions implicit in comedies, romantic or otherwise. Beyond facilitating an intriguing look into that culture, they still fall into the clichés of “the best friends” (or in the case, other best friends) who remark on the central romance with unremarkable statements. For Sasha, this means shaking their heads at her growing distance from Paige or at Sasha’s poor choice of lovers, demonstrated by the two SNL alum who play different sides of the same flaky coin
Brody fares better as Paige’s love interest because of his understated social ineptitude that disarmingly—or in insidiously from Sasha’s perspective—expands into something substantial. It is not Brody’s movie, but he makes a nice foil for adulthood against the endlessly childish Sasha.
However, it always comes back down to Sasha and Paige. Playing the total inverse of her lovable personification for failure on Community, Jacobs gets to find a new onscreen voice of maturity, not that Paige is exactly a grown-up. As another character has stated on Jacobs’ show, “adulthood begins at 30” for this generation, and on the tip of that decade, Paige surprises even herself with her readiness for it. Sadly, Sasha spends the whole movie looking at that new finish line for youth in our culture, and she is still unable to cope. The yin-and-yang of this pairing provides the movie with its pathos, but both the actresses’ performances elevate the picture’s quality immeasurably.
Life Partners’ interest is about the state of a friendship during an (admittedly late) point of transition that every life goes through. It is never more or less than that. But with some strong character work, especially in the form of an indie star-ready Meester, these life partners are an enduringly happy one to visit.