Honesty is one of the most powerful traits any film can possess. It is also one of the most elusive and difficult to describe, which is, perhaps, its power. Artistic honesty in intangible, impossible to explain and even harder to consciously create. A filmmaker cannot aim to imbue their work with honesty, or the results shall ring false. Honest material stems naturally from the heart and is filtered through the mind to weave an experience that is authentic to its core. Viewers, in turn, can never knowingly search for authenticity, cannot pinpoint the telltale signs of genuine, heartfelt filmmaking. We simply know it when we see it, and when the emotions and development of the narrative and characters feels deeply, undeniably organic, our hearts are affected, and our minds tell us we have seen something great.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is, above all else, an honest piece of filmmaking. It is a messy film, a rough and unpolished work that suffers from obvious structural issues, but every single moment is graced with such profound emotional authenticity that those issues hardly matter. The cumulative effect is powerful, and the challenging concepts the film raises about love, friendship, maturity, and growth linger long after one exits the theatre.
The film opens with a difficult premise, one that a lesser work would have tremendous difficult selling. The title characters, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), are a seemingly perfect couple. They have known each other since High School, and are in their sixth year of marriage. They know every inch of the other’s rhythms, interacting on a practically telepathic level. They adore each other’s company, declare their love frequently, and partake in many silly rituals that make sense only to them.
They are also, as it turns out, in the middle of getting divorced after sixth months of separation. The Celeste and Jesse who seem so happy used to fight all the time, and have only returned to being friends because they chose to remove romance from the equation.
The concept makes little sense. It enrages Celeste and Jesse’s friends, and befuddles the audience. How can two people so desperately in love choose to separate? The reasons shall become clear as the film moves along, but the situation is believable in the early going because the material is written, directed, and performed with incredible honesty. These characters feel absolutely real, their emotions are thoroughly genuine, and their situation makes sense in the context they have crafted for themselves.
But achieving believability is not the same as depicting a positive scenario. What Celeste and Jesse have done to themselves is toxic, and the viewer is confused because it is clear their arrangement cannot last. They tread emotionally rocky ground, and are only unaware of the danger because so far, they have avoided stumbling.
But stumble they do, and that is when the well-established emotional honesty becomes paramount to the film’s success. Jesse, who never wanted the divorce, makes a mistake that may jeopardize the couple from ever reuniting, and Celeste, in turn, begins to realize what a great thing she threw away. Neither act or think logically, but are instead guided by their hearts to increasingly dark places, where redemption grows further and further away upon the horizon.
Allowing the characters to be this imperfect is, I think, the core source of the film’s honest power. Humans are, after all, flawed and malleable creatures. The reason most romance stories ring false is because they focus only on the positive, when we in fact spend most of our lives wallowing in or paying the price for the mistakes we have made. Celeste and Jesse Forever is, at heart, a complex dissertation on those mistakes, an examination of emotional cause and effect. Whether or not one believes their romance was built to last, it was a series of small but critical errors that drove Celeste and Jesse apart, and the fallout of those errors grows increasingly painful as each learns to live with mistakes they cannot take back. Every single person who watches this film can relate to the concept, for each of us are plagued on a daily basis by memories of imperfect pasts, pasts we wish we could revise to our liking.
What Celeste and Jesse Forever so delicately suggests, however, is that remorse and fault are key to the human experience. Were we made immaculate, it would be impossible to appreciate the wonders of life, for none of our triumphs would ever be at risk. Being broken brings immense pain and sadness, but it also allows us to truly appreciate the parts of life that matter most.
This is the lesson Celeste, positioned as the protagonist and point-of-view character, must come to accept. Once she realizes how irrevocably her wonderful romance has been shattered, she is thrust into depression and anger, a confused mess of feelings her mind cannot make sense of. Moving forward means understanding Jesse’s wrongs while accepting her own, and coming to terms with the fact that things shall never be the same. Only then can she appreciate and value the beauty that once surrounded her, and become more whole by addressing the imperfections that led to tragedy.
Whether or not one finds the message uplifting will depend entirely on the viewer. Experience speaks differently to every person, and Celeste and Jesse Forever dramatizes genuine human experience so well that it is bound to provoke a large swath of reactions. I personally found myself asking a circular series of unanswerable questions upon exiting the theatre: Was Celeste’s growth worth the cost? Can her life ever be as good without Jesse as it was with? Though she fully understands the value of human relationships, did the realization come at the cost of the most important one she will ever have? I cannot answer these questions, just as Celeste cannot answer these questions. I cannot even say whether or not this story makes me feel sad or inspired. All I know is that the quandaries carry immense and important truth, and for that I feel fulfilled.
As Celeste, Rashida Jones is an absolute revelation. She has long been one of my favorite supporting actresses, but here, she displays profound dimensions of nuance and humanity few performers ever attain. She is in absolute command of the screen, a rough and riveting presence who perfectly sells every emotion, from organic pieces of humor to harrowing moments of unfathomable sadness. Jones also co-wrote the film, and it is easy to see that her connection to the material runs deep. She is so utterly dedicated that brilliance is often achieved with nothing more than a glance.
Celeste is such a tremendously compelling character, on page and as performed, that it is little wonder the film chooses to focus almost entirely on her. But Jesse is a very strong character as well, and the film would be greater if it gave him just a few more scenes to better illuminate his feelings and position. Andy Samberg is excellent in the role, displaying dramatic range I never knew he possessed, but the character is ultimately underutilized, and that in turn dilutes our understanding of what Celeste is going through.
The film also encounters pacing issues around the middle, when it sees Celeste running in place for just a bit too long. The emotions involved in moving the character from one step of her journey to another are, of course, very complex, and I understand exactly why the proceedings become shaggy during their darkest stretch. But additional polish on the script would have helped here, as would the excising of several unnecessary or repetitive scenes. At the very least, time spent watching Celeste on her downward spiral could be split with Jesse adjusting to his own conditions, thus reducing the sense of dramatic stagnation.
Even at its weakest, though, Celeste and Jesse Forever is still a spectacularly made film. Director Lee Toland Krieger has a wonderful eye for visuals, and cinematographer David Lanzenberg lends the frame a rough, fluid style that perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the characters. It is one of the most strikingly shot films of the year, a little unlike anything I have seen before.
Krieger also balances tone flawlessly, finding organic openings for laugh-out-loud humor at every turn. I would not call the film a comedy – the central dilemma and way it is handled are too dark for mirth to be the prevailing emotion – but if one aims to emulate real life, humor must be part of the equation. There are very few times, after all, when our lives are completely devoid of joy.
This is only one of many insights Celeste and Jesse Forever masters. It is a deeply felt, highly authentic work, one so painfully genuine that it perfectly captures many poignant particulars of the human experience. I find it tough to dwell on the film’s negatives, and difficult to summarize every positive thought it inspired. The film simply connects, on many varied levels, and is one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of 2012.