Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 88 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. Pretty standard romantic comedy stuff: some cursing and some kissing, including a makeout scene on a public bench and the implication of romantic infidelity, and a character’s death off-screen.
‘The Park Bench’ tries to put a spin on the romantic-comedy genre with its emphasis on American literature, but its characters’ cliches make it a ho-hum attempt.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Well-off girl with no sense of her own beauty and humor” and “guy from the wrong side of the tracks who helps her find herself” are two of the romance genre’s most stereotypical elements, and yet they’re practically all “The Park Bench” has to offer. The film incorporates American literature as the shared interest drawing its characters together, but the arguing about Robert Frost and William Faulkner is secondary to the film’s primary cliches.
“The Park Bench” focuses on the relationship between college students Emily (Nicole Hayden) and Mateo (Walter Perez), who are paired together when the former is assigned to mentor the latter for a particularly tough American literature course. The course is rigorous – six papers and two exams, at least – and Mateo’s scholarship is on the line, so he and Emily agree at her insistence to meet three times a week, and they also agree at his insistence that they do so on a park bench instead of in a library or enclosed space.
“You need to choose me as your tutor …and I need to choose you as my student,” Emily notes, but at first they seem miserable together. He turns in assignments that aren’t focused, she forces him to do rewrites, and he mocks her interest in obtaining a master’s degree in library science – why wouldn’t she want to be a princess or a ballerina instead? That’s what his little sister wants.
But eventually, over many days spent together, the chilliness starts to melt. The film is divided into various segments – titles include “Gatsby,” “The Confession,” and “Something Left Behind” – and animated stories and flashbacks break up the present narrative. Through sharing their own interests (Emily’s love of musicals, her admiration for Edith Wharton) and backgrounds (Mateo shares his mother’s Mexican home cooking with her, as well as stories about crossing the border illegally and his parents’ pursuit of the American dream), a friendship develops, and then something more. Yet Emily is engaged to be married, and Mateo seems to have a revolving array of girlfriends – is their attraction genuine?
The romance genre thrives on relationship pairings who don’t like each other at first; that’s practically Nicholas Sparks’s bread and butter. But the great flaw of “The Park Bench” is that it doesn’t bring anything truly new to the table. Centering the Emily/Mateo relationship around literature and bringing in allusions to text is interesting at first, like when Mateo compares Gatsby’s treatment of the American dream with his family’s own, but fundamentally the characters are still “sheltered privileged white girl” and “ethnically diverse and therefore more attune to the real world minority guy,” and how the latter teaches the former about experiencing life is frustratingly simple. It seems like the answer to all the world’s happiness is in a tamale for him and a book of Robert Frost poetry for her, and then they switch, which must mean they’re in love! That kind of reductive, simplistic generalization doesn’t do the characters any favors.
Teenage readers might enjoy “The Park Bench” for all the literary allusions, and the animated sequences are just unexpected enough to be amusing. But the film’s inability to do anything truly unique with its characters and its overreliance on familiar romantic-comedy tropes make “The Park Bench” fundamentally disappointing.
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