Past Lives and the power of small scale drama

The new drama Past Lives centers on three ordinary people taking realistic actions, leading to messy outcomes. There are no clean Hollywood endings, heroes, or villains. Characters don’t die. Nobody is saving the world. Writer-director Celine Song challenges audience expectations of Hollywood escapism and genre conventions and, in the process, makes a riveting movie.

Reflecting on the forty-plus films I’ve seen this calendar year, three of my favorites – 2020’s The Nest, 2022’s Saint Omer, and Past Lives – share the same small scale and grounded feel.

Each film has different aims and subject matter. The Nest follows a rich family moving to 80s England for business opportunities. Saint Omer is a French courtroom procedural covering a woman accused of infanticide. Past Lives centers on two childhood friends who split apart, later in life reunited.

(Spoilers for all three films follow below. If any of these films sound interesting, I’d encourage you to pause on the rest of this post and come back after watching.)

For The Nest, entrepreneur husband Rory (Jude Law) uproots the family back to England with little enthusiasm from his wife or kids. As Rory makes increasingly reckless decisions to sustain an unaffordable lifestyle, tensions escalate. Hollywood conventions would push family relationships into an irrevocable breaking point and wallow in tragedy. Maybe the rest of the family secretly packs their bags and escapes back to the US, never to be seen by Rory again. Or one of the kids attempts suicide out of desperation.

For Saint Omer, courtroom procedurals tend to rely on shock admissions and sudden twists and turns. Lawyers berate witnesses while testimony runs tearful and over the top.

Past Lives has a potential love triangle premise: two childhood friends – Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) – born in South Korea are fated at a young age to be together. Nora immigrates to Canada and marries an American writer (John Magaro). Hae Sung visits Nora in New York twenty years later, single and reflecting on what could have been. Other screenplays might portray her husband as a superficial bore. Nora leaves her husband and finds true love with Hae Sung. Roll credits.

None of these movies take conventional shortcuts. For the final act of The Nest, Rory has a turbulent business dinner with potential clients and is cut out of the deal by a coworker. Broke and drunk, Rory walks through the night to his rural home. Finding his family at the dinner table eating breakfast, Rory proposes a wild idea to make ends meet. His wife refuses, Rory begins to cry, and his daughter hugs him.

In Saint Omer, virtually all the court participants, including the defendant, prosecutor, and judge, mainly act as reasonable, nuanced individuals. The young Senegalese defendant Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) readily admits to the crime early on and talks through her isolation as a recent French immigrant. Rama (Kayije Kagame), a professor and novelist there to write about the case, reflects on her life and returns to Paris before she can hear the case verdict.

For Past Lives, after a series of conversations between Nora and Hae Sung in New York, Hae Sung gets on an Uber to fly back to Korea, and Nora returns to her husband.

Keeping onscreen actions grounded and realistic makes the characters and thematic elements far more relatable and impactful. For The Nest, while I can’t relate to a flashy, materialistic financial entrepreneur, by the end, I had genuine sympathy for Rory. He’s a character that transcends mere caricature, driven by fundamental character flaws. His family resented his actions but still acted as a unit willing to listen or forgive. The scenario does not excuse Rory’s actions but opens up possibilities for at least mild redemption.

Nor can I relate to a mother admitting to an action as horrendous as infanticide in Saint Omer. But learning about her backstory and leaving the trial outcome indeterminant, my mind went beyond the crime to topics of immigration, French cultural identity, the judicial system, and even societal expectations on new mothers.

Past Lives comments on the immigrant experience, destiny, and how people fall in love. But avoiding romantic clichés and embracing realism made me reflect on my past and family situation in a way I never would have otherwise.

With all this out of the way, this isn’t to say small scale realistic dramas are better than other movie types. Movies are just as fantastic for what’s not ordinary or natural. The John Wick and Mission: Impossible series are impeccable action spectacles. Countless science fiction and horror films would rarely be considered realistic or humanistic, yet they can be a thrill and have profound underlying commentary on the here and now.

However, movies like Past Lives tend to be underrated and, in general, under seen. I understand they may not be for everyday viewing; diving deep into ordinary human emotion can be hard to sit through. I still implore you to take a chance on them.