By Jim Muntisov
In his second feature, Tom O’Brien’s “Manhattan Romance” follows twenty-something Danny, a documentary filmmaker who is attempting to complete a passion project of his on varying forms of romance people share in New York City. Danny struggles to finish the film as relationships in his life begin to get complicated.
“Manhattan Romance” is a small-scale piece structured around various character interactions. In the wake of similar films such as “Frances Ha” and “Drinking Buddies,” it is a necessity to have compelling dialogue and interesting characters to stand out from the crowd. O’Brien achieves both, with a diverse group of what feels like real New Yorkers who have clashing ideals and personalities that drive the narrative forward. Danny wants something more with romance, but all the people around him conceive it differently.
O’Brien writes, directs and stars in his film and you can’t help feel the story is somewhat autobiographical. The relationships between Danny and the other characters play like real interactions and Danny’s social commentaries act as an outlet for O’Brien to voice his own opinions. It’s refreshing to see a film that feels so real and contemporary. Tom O’Brien is a voice waiting to be heard.
Although the film attempts to separate itself from the standard rom-com with it’s social commentaries and interesting personalities, “Manhattan Romance” falls into a couple of familiar tropes of the genre. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was jarring at times to feel like the story was avoiding such stereotypes and then have it delve into them a scene later. What it does do well is capture modern romances that don’t feel forced. The types of relationships that are present throughout are only just beginning to be seen on screens and it’s good to see O’Brien taking charge and creating accurate portrayals.
Performances are great across the board. Caitlin Fitzgerald (“Masters of Sex”) plays Theresa, one of Danny’s documentary subjects who dabbles in open relationships — Fitzgerald perfects the free spirit. Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”) as Danny’s best friend, Carla, plays off O’Brien with ease. The two of them are a joy to watch together. Even in smaller roles, Gaby Hoffman (“Transparent”), Zach Grenier (“Fight Club”) and Louis Cancelmi (“Boardwalk Empire”) create memorable performances and great sparring partners for O’Brien. If you live in New York City, you probably have met at least one of these characters in your life. It’s great to see O’Brien avoiding film stereotypes and portraying a realistic, modern palette of characters.
Manhattan is clearly a big part of the picture, filming in local areas like Washington Square Park and St. Marks Place. There are some great locations throughout, capturing many aspects of the current New York lifestyle.
O’Brien has created a standout feature that captures the essence of New York today. His characters are lively and his writing is on point. It’s a perfect little slice-of-life piece, even if it does deceive with a couple of rom-com tropes.
Jim Muntisov is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.