SXSW 2023: Love is Hard in PARACHUTE

A prickly but beautiful film about the pain of trying to love someone who can’t love themselves

Loving people is hard. Loving them when they seem incapable of loving themselves is even harder.

Premiering at SXSW, the new film Parachute is the debut directorial effort from Brittany Snow, who also wrote the script along with partner Becca Gleason. At the premier, Snow was fairly explicit about the movie’s connections to her own struggles with body image, eating disorders and mental health. But what elevates Parachute to a triumph of a debut film for the director is it’s deep dive into issues of interpersonal responsibility, and the nature of loving someone who seem incapable of loving themselves, or knowing how to accept love in a healthy way.

The film centers on Riley (Courtney Eaton), a 20-something Brooklynite who after being released from rehab to help develop structures of support for an eating disorder, attempts to piece her life back together. Through the support of her best friend Casey (Francesca Reale), she goes out, looking to get her feet underneath her. She meets Ethan (Thomas Mann), a kind stranger who unquestionably likes her. The only problem? Part of Riley’s program is that she is not supposed to have any romantic relationships for a year after exiting rehab. Plus Riley’s continuing struggles with body dysmorphia puts up walls, making it impossible to engage fully in physical intimacy.

Unfortunately, Riley and Ethan feel a mutual attraction that makes it impossible for them to fully ignore each other. Thus they develop a deep friendship, living life as near romantic partners…save for the romance part. They spend all their time together, practically inseparable. When Riley’s psychologist asks her who else she could hang out with, she stares, dumbfounded at the very idea of them not being with each other. Before long it becomes clear that a set pattern of toxic codependent behavior has developed.

This is the central bite of Parachute, a film that fluctuates between being a powerful romance and a cautious tale about allowing yourself to become too entangled with people who can’t be as giving of their whole selves. For much of the run time, deep sympathy is given to Riley and her struggles. But it also becomes very clear, Riley is not an easy person to try to love, in no small part because she doesn’t accept love or care easily. By having a self-perception of being unworthy of love, she pushes others away, only to be hurt when they can’t emotionally stay in her orbit.

Much of the emotional weight of the film rests on Eaton and Mann’s performances, and both are powerful magnetic forces, especially when they are playing against each other. They make such a captivating on screen duo, that you find yourself immediately rooting for them from the moment they lock eyes. But then it becomes clear that their relationship, or at least their romance, is doomed, that neither is in the head space to carry themselves, let alone each other. As they come closer and then push apart, their dynamics constantly shifting, the film never fully reveals its hand until the final moments. Scenes that are triumphant in one context are immediately undercut, and the film settles into being far from a simple, feel good romance.

Outside of Eaton and Mann, the film has a surprisingly stacked supporting cast. Dave Bautista continues to expand his range as a beleaguered dinner theater owner, Joel McHale plays Ethan’s alcoholic father, and Gina Rodriguez is Riley’s eternally patient therapist. But it is the young actors who walk away with the film, especially Eaton, who carries all the complication of Riley as a character with integrity and intensity.

As a director, Snow’s approach favors a sense of intimacy and spontaneity, creating a portrait of Brooklyn that is young, fizzy and vibrant at times, but also can feel foreboding as the circumstances grow more severe. There is a glamor to her vision, but there are flourishes that create a visual language for Riley’s anxiety; as Riley finds herself judging herself against any other woman she runs across, Snow uses rapid-fire extreme close-ups, allowing the camera to obsess with the body the same way Riley herself does.

The greatest achievement of Snow as a director though is the balance to her storytelling pacing and the emotional weight that she puts upon her actors, trusting them to tackle these complicated dynamics with sympathy and subtlety. The end result is remarkable portrait of people trying to love each other, and the landmines that we often place between each other.

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