From left, Emma (Phillipa Soo) and Sam (Simu Liu) in “One True Loves.”

‘One True Loves’ Proves Ignoring Race’s Role in Casting Isn’t the Answer

Representation matters, but it needs smart, intentional storytelling and dialogue to back it up

From left, Emma (Phillipa Soo) and Sam (Simu Liu) in “One True Loves.”

Still frame from “One True Loves”

One True Loves boasts a riveting premise on paper. Widowed bookstore owner Emma Blair (Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo) finds a second chance at love with her high school best friend, Sam (Simu Liu of Shang-Chi fame), only to discover that her husband, Jesse (Luke Bracey), has been found alive. In addition, this tale of a woman torn romantically in twain race-swaps most of its key characters, none of whom were East Asian American in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2016 novel. However, despite the dramatic potential inherent to this change, and to the story as a whole, director Andy Fickman’s excavation of these characters is rarely more than skin-deep.

The film, out in theaters today and digitally on April 14, begins with a brief but adorable flashback to when the trio were teenagers, and when Emma (played here by Oona Yaffe) first met and was enamored by Jesse (Cooper van Grootel), as Sam (Phinehas Yoon) looked on with envy. Little time is spent with the teen actors, but they’re expertly cast, both for their resemblance to their adult counterparts, and for the precision with which they set up the story of Emma and Jesse’s romance, and of Sam watching quietly from the sidelines. However, the story soon skips forward nearly a decade and cuts right to the chase: on the night Emma and Sam celebrate their engagement, as their families toast to Emma’s second shot at life, Emma receives a shocking phone call informing her that Jesse—who was presumed dead in helicopter crash six years prior—has been rescued from a deserted island, and on his way back to find her. On one hand, skipping right to the meat of the premise gives the appearance of diving headfirst into raw dramatic territory. However, the movie quickly reveals an undercooked structure, as it attempts to fill in the gaps of Emma’s romances with both men in retrospect, through further flashbacks scattered across the narrative seemingly at random.

While the situation before Emma yields emotional complications, there’s a stiffness to each scene in which it’s discussed. Her exchanges with Sam, or with her supportive parents, Ashley (Lauren Tom) and Colin (Michael O’Keefe), and her diligent older sister, Marie (Michaela Conlin), are sketched with the kind of function-first dialogue that explicitly helps lay out the plot, but does little to dramatize lingering doubts or feelings. Soo, therefore, is shouldered with unearthing the story’s underlying themes—of a woman torn between the adventurous person she once was with Jesse, and the small-town homebody she hopes to be with Sam—entirely in words. She has no choice but to coat her verbal exchanges in tears and deep breaths, because little in the character’s actions or dialogue makes her come off as a woman beset by grief. It makes for a performance that reflects the idea of drama, without there being much actual drama to speak of, in a script that often feels like a hasty first draft. However, part of this is also owed to Fickman’s stilted filmmaking, which (like the functional dialogue) seeks first and foremost to depict the plot, through static verbal exchanges, rather than seeking to unearth the doubts and confusions lingering beneath the surface of each character.

Soo, therefore, is shouldered with unearthing the story’s underlying themes...entirely in words. She has no choice but to coat her verbal exchanges in tears and deep breaths, because little in the character’s actions or dialogue makes her come off as a woman beset by grief.

The movie’s racial dynamics are similarly superficial. It radiates outward from Soo’s initial casting, as a mixed-race Asian American woman, whose sister is subsequently cast from a similar background, and whose parents are played by an Asian actress and a white actor. The script—which the novel’s author co-wrote with her screenwriter husband, Alex Jenkins Reid—doesn’t shift to accommodate any notions of race within the Blair family, or with Sam being cast as Asian, too. And while there’s an argument to be made that it shouldn’t, the visual storytelling doesn’t adapt to these dynamics either, and fails to take advantage of the subtext introduced by the casting right from minute one.

There’s an automatic in-group and out-group established in the movie’s opening scene, which sees the teenage Emma and Sam off in the corner of a poolside party, a pair of Asian American wallflowers in a space that—though the film hardly explores it—is mostly white. This sense of separation is further enhanced when a shirtless Jesse emerges from the pool, his long blond hair dripping wet, as he catches Emma’s eye, much to Sam’s chagrin. Sam’s envious gaze from his quiet corner places both male leads within pre-existing cinematic confines, with Sam as the nervous, desexualized Asian American male, and Jesse as his de facto romanticized Caucasian counterpart—though Sam breaks out of this mold in adulthood, when he and Emma reunite after Jesse’s apparent demise. However, these initial hints when the characters are teenagers (including Emma being shouldered with Sam’s animus towards Jesse, through subtle but pointed jabs) are the entire extent of the movie’s awareness, intentional or otherwise, towards anything resembling racial dynamics.

In “One True Loves,” Emma (Phillipa Soo, center), finds out her presumed dead husband is actually alive while celebrating a new engagement to Sam (Simu Liu, right).

John Merrick

The casting of Emma as a mixed race woman forced to choose between the temptation of an adventurous, globetrotting white partner and the relative stability of an Asian music teacher neither comes into play directly, as a dilemma of cultural expectation, nor as a reflection of her own parents’ story as a mixed-race couple (like Emma, Ashley and Colin seldom feel like they have a tangible past). The setting is also one that, in theory, ought to yield similar reflections—the story unfolds in a mostly white town in rural Massachusetts—but by ignoring race's role in casting, the movie misses a major opportunity to tell a more nuance, interesting story. In comparison, Andrew Ahn’s 2019 drama Driveways found renewed subtext in its story of grief and small-town (un)belonging by casting Asian American performers in its leading roles—which were originally written white—but without changing a single written element of the script. Instead, Ahn’s camera lingered on specific details of the characters’ lived experiences, and the edit often extended specific shots so as to shift focus from mere verbal interaction to the gaze of whiteness whenever the lead characters interacted with their Caucasian neighbors. One True Loves does no such thing, discarding further questions of Emma’s place in the world and the possibilities surrounding her two choices.

All this would be a minor complaint were the film’s existing story at least intriguingly told. However, the more pressing problem with One True Loves is that Emma’s choices are rarely presented with enough pros to outweigh their cons. Bracey plays a man re-adjusting to civilization with appropriately haunted glares, but the fantasy of Jesse is often limited to his chiseled appearance. Even montages of the duo’s life together, traveling the world as Emma blogs about her adventures, are limited mostly to stock footage of different locales and screenshots of the blogs themselves. Flashbacks of their life together rarely feel like, well, a life together. They’re lacking in the kind of passion and chemistry that ought to bring Emma back to a specific time in her life when Jesse finally returns—an idea that fails to take cinematic form whenever the movie flashes back to their story, seemingly at random, making their romance feel like a series of events on rote genre check-list, rather than memories spurred on by events in the present.

From left, Emma (Phillipa Soo) and Jesse (Luke Bracey) in “One True Loves.”

John Merrick

Similarly, Liu’s conception of Sam is hardly romantic. He plays the character both with a sense of didacticism (Sam often makes Emma’s life-changing decisions for her) and, simultaneously, a number of broad sitcom affects that make it hard to take him seriously as a potential love interest, and often plunge the film into tonal limbo, wherein it can’t decide how seriously to take its own story. Both men are also, at times, quite nasty to Emma, and rather than this aspect of them complicating her choice by adding to their portraits as complex human beings, it simply nullifies the dilemma in the eyes of the audience. It’s hard not to feel like she’d be better off on her own.

With a topsy-turvy, unmotivated structure that robs the movie of real ruminations on grief, One True Loves rests on the laurels of the ideas it presents, without investigating their emotional (or social) implications. The movie’s characters seldom exist in a real world, with real experiences, emotions, or histories. Its only effective fantasy is that of a woman rebuilding herself so swiftly after her life has crumbled. The film presents this as far too easily achieved, for a tale in which loss is a defining notion, and one in which choosing between two partners and two different lives is (or ought to be) a vital decision on par with life or death—rather than a conclusion whose potential outcomes all feel equally hollow.

Published on April 7, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter