'Stop Being a Benny!'

Pretend We’re Kissing
(Canada, 78 min.)
Written and directed by Matt Sadowski
Starring: Dov Tiefenbach, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Zoe Kravitz
Benny & Jordan (Dov Tiefenbach & Tommie-Amber Pirie).
Photo: Erin Simkin

[ben-ee] Noun. Slang
1. Benzedrine, especially in tablet form.
2. A tourist who visits the Jersey shore from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, or New York (or anywhere near these places.) These tourists pollute the beaches and are rude to the locals. (Hat tip, Urban Dictionary)
3. Abbrev’d name for Eggs Benedict.
4. A meek guy unlucky in love.

“Stop being a Benny!” cries Autumn, the armchair boho nudist played by Zoe Kravitz in Pretend We’re Kissing. A guy can’t really stop being a pair of runny eggs smothered in Hollandaise sauce, nor can he stop being a Jersey Shore d-bag whilst roaming the Annex in Toronto, so it’s safe to say that Autumn’s roommate Benny falls into the fourth class of Bennies. Benny (Dov Tienfenbach) just can’t stop being a Benny as his crippling shyness makes him a total loser in the romance department. But how does a guy stop being a Benny when he’s, well, a Benny?

Benny isn’t one of those guys who watched too many movies and now has unrealistic expectations about love. (That’s when Zoe Kravitz tells you to “Stop being a Pat!”) He just doesn’t know how to work with women, as evidence by his sweet moves at a concert where one girl catches his eye and he just hovers over her like a total creeper. No offer of “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” or anything—just pure creepy, awkward hovering.

Love stories in the movies that begin with creepy, awkward hovering don’t usually end in happily-ever-after, but Pretend We’re Kissing does away with the old tricks that movies use to make audiences feel like fools in love. The smart, talky, and character-driven Pretend We’re Kissing proudly rejects the name of a romantic comedy, and even though it’s both romantic and comedic, it certainly isn’t a romcom. It’s a nomcomrom, just as it advertises itself to be. There are no Dirty Dancing lifts in Pretend We’re Kissing, nor does Richard Gere come running with roses.

It’s refreshing to find a film that makes audiences swoon over seeing life and love as they really are. This smart feature debut by Matt Sadowski puts Benny in a relationship that feels lovely for all its messy awkwardness. Benny bumps into Jordan, the girl from the concert, on the street by Honest Ed’s, and they hit it off quickly on a first date that goes surprisingly well. Jordan (played by Tommie-Amber Pirie from Don’t Get Killed in Alaska) knows how to work with Benny’s bashfulness, and soon enough they’re sharing Caesars and quick fucks in a local diner and making plans for another date.

Pretend We’re Kissing lets Benny and Jordan flirt with a romance that almost feels like the movies when sparks fly one night on Centre Island. (The film keeps an independent spirit alive through its strong indie soundtrack and eclectic Toronto locations.) They have one of those perfect dates when two people just click and talk for hours, although Sadowski writes in enough awkward pauses and buzzkill moments to keep the film’s anti-Hollywood love story in check. Pretend We’re Kissing is honest, funny, and sweeter than most Hollywood fluff because it feels possible.

The film stays true to life by have the magic slip through Benny’s grasp almost as quickly as it appears. The dates following the Centre Island bliss are defined by bad moves and uncomfortable silences as Benny makes guffaws all around Brunchtown, but not the good, hesitant, and flirty pauses that help Benny and Jordan makes some sparks. Brace yourselves for one of the most awkward sex scenes ever put in a film as Benny and Jordan fumble and grind quickly and clumsily instead of caressing passionately by candlelight to Celine Dion. (The film won a well-deserved jury prize for Most Awkward Sex Scene at last week’s Canadian Film Festival in Toronto.) The film confronts our insecurities over love and relationships with this misfire of a date, and the natural downward spin makes audiences realizes that it’s hard to stop being a Benny when being a Romeo just makes things worse.

Pretend We’re Kissing, however, only feels like a movie whenever Benny returns home and Kravitz is onscreen as Autumn embodies all of the hilariously plausible Crazy Roommate from Hell traits that make sharing a home a nightmare. (As someone who once had a loony roommate who she stole pants from her conquests and hid them in the air ducts, I can confidently say that Kravitz’s character isn’t too contrived to be true.) Kravitz is groovy fun, though, and her familiar face testifies to the strength and character of the script as she takes a small role in this modest comedy. Autumn helps put the authenticity of Benny’s miserable luck into perspective as she looks for love on Craig’s List—someone at The Royal should plan a double bill of Pretend We’re Kissing and I Put a Hit on You—and helps him learn that missed connections are better than no connections at all.

Ironically, though, Pretend We’re Kissing becomes more satisfying the more the romance between Benny and Jordan grows bitter. The film plays with one’s desire for a happy ending as one roots for Benny to the bittersweet end. Life doesn’t always work like that, though, and Pretend We’re Kissing makes us complicit by making Benny a likable antihero who deserves a break. One wants him to get the girl even though his courtship with Jordan defies the logic of both the movies and real life. It helps, too, that Tiefenbach and Pirie are strong leads who ensure that Benny and Jordan are flawed and relatable. They’re people we’ve encountered before, even in some aspect of ourselves. I like being a Benny!

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Pretend We’re Kissing opens in Toronto on April 3 at the Carlton Theatre and at Landmark Cinemas in Ottawa, Whitby and Vancouver.