Through his warts and all, you will almost immediately find yourself falling in love with Chase Hinton's Ian, a seemingly decent enough human being whose completely relatable flaws bring him closer to us and closer to his unfolding story. He's a graphic designer, though his art has become, well, derivative and you can't help but get the sense that his decent existence isn't quite good enough.
Ian's an attractive guy, not so much in the Brad Pitt kind of way but in the kind of way that makes you think if he lived next door your first thought wouldn't be "serial killer." I guess you could call him the "guy next door" type. He's got a pretty cool L.A. apartment and a life that just sort of says "things are alright."
Ian is, for lack of a better way to say it, looking for love. No, it's not really in all the wrong places. He's just not finding it. He's a dating app debonair who's seemingly looking for something just beyond everything he's finding.
Then, he stumbles across Sofia (Johanna Sol), a 97% match who's initial impression of "too good to be true" pretty much stays that way. Sofia? She's attractive, or at least so it seems. She's also compassionate and kind, funny and incredibly intelligent.
She's, well, everything.
I've never quite figured out what it takes to become gobsmacked, but I'm pretty sure whatever Ian's experiencing falls under the definition of gobsmacked. There is, of course, a central problem at play here - Sofia is in Mexico City caring for her mother as she endures cancer treatments.
Long-distance relationships can work. Or can they?
By now, you're probably shaking your head and thinking to yourself "I don't need to see another one of those long-distance relationship films." I get it. I get it completely. We've all seen 'em. We've all cringed or shrugged or laughed or slept our way through them.
I promise you that IRL, which of course is webspeak for "in real life," is a different sort of cinematic beast.
In fact, it's something special.
Recently released by indie distributor Summer Hill Films after a pandemic-influenced festival run that included multiple prizes at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, IRL is an intelligent, intuitive, achingly vulnerable, and remarkably human motion picture that soars almost precisely because it doesn't soar.
In other words, there's no false histrionics to be found here. That's even true as we watch Ian endure his painful family dynamics, brought vividly to life by indie actor extraordinaire Eric Roberts playing the kind of father he plays masterfully but also never detouring his way into caricature. Julia Parker, who picked up the Best Supporting Actress prize at Idyllwild, is an absolute gem as Ian's mother Sandra and takes yet another role that could have been easy caricature and fleshes it out. Hinton himself picked up the Best Actor prize at Idyllwild, while both Roberts and Sol were nominated in their respective categories.
All are incredibly worthy.
It's worth noting that Hinton also penned IRL and it's the kind of script that should have Hollywood knocking on his door, a rare romantic drama comfortable with itself and comfortable with both its romance and drama. While there are fleeting moments of light humor, IRL is truly a film for the romantic heart.
It almost goes without saying that certain films will come to mind while watching IRL, perhaps most notably such endearing familiars as Lost in Translation or Linklater's Before films. It's understandable, I suppose, though it should be acknowledged that IRL is very much set in a tech-inspired social world with surprisingly satisfying integration of apps, phone calls, texts, and the various ways we find to reach out to one another these days. It would be hard to guesstimate how many times I've found myself dissatisfied by this integration, yet director Ricardo Perez-Selsky does it right and surrounds himself by a cast and crew that absolutely nails it. In fact, it may be a testament to Perez-Selsky's quietly confident and disciplined direction that the director didn't actually find himself recognized at Idyllwild, a grave injustice, but instead was surrounded by a cast and crew thst snagged seven award nominations and four wins.
To share too much about the story that unfolds would be an injustice, as well, though IRL does ultimately tell a familiar story in somewhat unfamiliar ways. It's not so much the plot itself that makes IRL such a beautiful film but how that plot comes to life in such authentic, wonderfully realized ways. Hinton's Ian is a joy to watch from beginning to end, his wonderfully expressive face often communicating so much more than the words on the page. In some ways, Ian is truly the "guy next door" but he's also got those warts of insecurity and impatience and wanting to "make" something happen when sometimes "making" something happen is the one thing you absolutely cannot do. You can feel Hinton's Ian processing words and images and conversations and his thoughts in practically every frame, the lensing by Sarah Phillips seeming to illuminate Ian's soul and, indeed, the wonder that is Sofia. Phillips, who captured cinematography prizes at Idyllwild and Silicon Beach Film Festival, is another one who should have Hollywood knocking on her door. Every precious moment of IRL is an absolute thing of beauty.
IRL is the kind of film I wish I could have seen on the big screen, though I'm grateful that in this still pandemic-influenced world that Summer Hill Films has gotten it out to a wider audience and you can watch it for yourself via streaming/VOD outlets including Amazon Prime. With an ending that feels honest and a journey that feels true, IRL is a cinematic journey you'll appreciate with a story that will linger in your heart and mind long after the closing credits have scrolled by.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic