If one were to close their eyes and merely listen to Molli and Max in the Future they would hear familiar cadences and tones found in traditional romantic comedies. From the initial “Meet Cute” onward, the lead voices of former Girls member Zosia Mamet and Saturday Night Live alum Aristotle Athari deliver punchy conversational dialogue very much in the vein of Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers. Behind those sprightly voices, viewers would also hear a light and fizzy score from composer Alex Winkler not all that far removed from the jazzy sounds of Woody Allen films. The rich ingredients are all there in your ears in this film featured at the SXSW Film Festival.
Without looking, you would think the two titular romantic prospects were strolling through autumnal city parks wearing cozy knit sweaters and sipping cups of hot or cold refreshment. It’s when you open your eyes that perspectives radically change for Molli and Max in the Future because there’s not a tree or stitch of wool in sight. Instead, the last three words of the film’s title come into play. Our two will-they/won’t-they lovebirds are two intergalactic citizens crossing spacefaring paths in a future stocked with aliens, demigods, and advanced technology.
The way your head is tilting right now is asking the same question we all are. Can a rom-com work in space? Once again, the ingredients are all there, only seasoned with sci-fi salt and pepper. As it turns out, the answers are emphatically “yes” and “why not,” and the proof is this plucky try-hard indie film. Arriving as an eclectic and highly creative labor-of-love from the cast members and first-time feature director Michael Lukk Litwak, Molli and Max in the Future succeeds in translating its genre to a new setting and it just might put a few earthbound rom-coms to shame.
Presented by chapter title cards in video game-ish fonts showing the passage of time, Molli and Max in the Future begins when Molli hits Max with her personal spaceship during a crystal collection trip among asteroids when his custom-built ship cuts her off and crashes. Regretting her part in the collision, Molli agrees to let the now vessel-less Max hitch a ride with her back to the urban Megalopolis planet. Through their initially demeaning complaints and mutual apologies, the two strike up a cheeky conversation and get to know each other. He’s an aspiring robot designer hoping to crack into super mecha fighting while she is a spiritual follower of the gods and a growing user of magical powers.
Yes, go ahead and say it. These are not your typical rom-com characters and settings. Fear not, the humanity and goals underneath are the same. Molli and Max’s day together is filled with shared sexual tension and challenges to compare and justify each other’s passions, endeavors, and cynicisms—not at all unlike the rom-coms of today and yesterday. In the business, we call that “flirting.” Their shared day ends in the chaste mutual decision that what they are feeling wouldn’t pan out long-term. Five years would pass until Max and Molli would run into each other again, this time accidentally trying to share the same space cab. In their years apart, Molly has immersed herself into a magical cult on an outreach mission while Max has become a renowned celebrity in the mecha fighting world.
Happy to see each other again and impressed by their respective advancement, the two agree to stick together as friends. Over a few more years, Molli and Max in the Future sees our duo through career shifts, political upheaval in the galaxy, lackluster dating cycles. All the while, they wonder, as we do, if more is possibly there between them.
As with any impressive romantic comedy, chemistry is key, and, by golly, do Zosia Mamet and Aristotle Athari have it. No matter how outwardly hokey they may look with Sarah Plata’s makeup and costumes from Hannah Kittell (The Wandering Earth II) for their unique setting, Zosia and Aristotle portray the fierce independence of their characters with the right level of swagger. They want what they want and express it freely. Yet, Mamet and Athari balance that outward confidence with an ever-patient level of unrequited pining. Classic to romantic comedies, they are two people wishing for more beyond their current states and failures only to realize the best scenario was always right in front of them. As typical as that path is from Litwak and how much we cheer for it, Molli and Max in the Future stays mature and intelligent with that proper emotional growth.
Again, it all just happens to take place in a wondrously wacky setting and time period from the norm. Scenes that would be hangouts or dates take place with time travel chicken wings, A.I. robots, Tron-like pickleball games, and alternate dimensions doppelgangers. Utilizing smart lighting tricks and green-screen production design creativity from Violet Overn (Pooling to Paradise) and a host of visual effects and miniature work conceived by cinematographer Zach Stoltzfus (From My River, With Love), writer-director Michael Lukk Litwak packages all these rom-com trappings in a dazzling demonstration of do-it-yourself budget filmmaking. Not all of the zaniness meshes for laughs, but the effort is undeniable and the transposed concept is a sound and delightful one that needs to be seen to be believed.