Nate & Margaret, actor Nathan Adloff’s adorable directorial debut, seems at first blush like a pretty ordinary indie comedy. Its premise, in fact, is conspicuously familiar: It tells the story of an unconventional friendship between Nate (Tyler Ross), a 19-year-old film student, and Margaret (Natalie West), a 52-year-old aspiring stand-up comedian, referred to as “grandma” by Nate’s friends. This age difference is never taken to be the film’s defining feature, but I expect it will be cause enough for the film to earn near-constant comparisons to Harold & Maude, with which Nate & Margaret has almost nothing else in common. (It probably doesn’t help that the film is being sold as a “fresh 21st-century twist” on Hal Ashby’s cult classic, but far be it for me to dissuade marketers from doing their job.) On paper, Adloff appears to have crafted a fleetingly amusing twee gem, the sort of precious indie darling for which hipsters everywhere will swoon. Which sounds, frankly, like some seriously tiresome bullshit. Nobody wants to see Juno with a spinster. But what’s remarkable about Nate & Margaret is that it’s so much more, and so much better, than its setup could suggest. This is an endearing, hopeful, and quietly radical film, a progressive comic drama made with real, palpable wit and heart.
Nate & Margaret begins like most indie comedies of its kind: We’re introduced to two lovably quirky characters, rapidly adapting to the rhythms of their friendship, watching them pillage a thrift store for oddities as idiosyncratic as they are. These early scenes, set to the ceaseless wide-eyed jingles of trendy indie-pop groups, have a somewhat cutesy quality that more cynical viewers may find grating, but soon enough the film finds a voice that’s more even-keeled and appealing. Margaret works at a coffee shop during the day, and at night she hones her craft at local stand-up dives—including the coffee shop itself, which allows her to practice her routine while serving. Nate, meanwhile, is cornered and kissed by a charmingly assertive guy at a party, and he soon finds himself set up on a more formal first date. It’s at roughly this point that Nate & Margaret becomes a film divided neatly in two: On one side, Margaret struggles to make a name for herself in the stand-up circuit, while on the other Nate loses himself in a relationship that’s moving too fast.
What does it take, in 2012, for a queer film to qualify as genuinely progressive? For starters, it ought to be difficult to identify as a queer film altogether, because effacing any sense of difference means essentially the opposite of marginalization. And so while Nate & Margaret tells the story of a friendship between two people of very different ages, it also involves the story of a 19-year-old’s tumultuous first relationship with another boy, though it’s the particulars of the relationship rather than the fact that it’s queer that forms the basis of the drama. This might sound like a fairly inconsequential matter, but consider for a second that even supposedly boundary-breaking queer films tend to underline sexual difference as a kind of fundamental dramatic “issue,” the queerness a subject unto itself.
Even Andrew Haigh’s acclaimed Weekend, though widely praised for treating its central relationship as (apparently) no different than a hetero union, was still very much about the queerness of its characters—sometimes to naturalistic ends, in the sense that it’s true to queer experience, but also often to borderline didactic ones, in the sense that it’s about a gay man “owning up” to his own sexuality in the public sphere. Nate & Margaret, on the other hand, manages to refer casually to the reality of living as an openly gay male without making that either a lesson or some kind of moralistic point. That it’s earnestly, endearingly a queer film without being aggressive about its own queerness makes it one of the most progressive films in recent memory, and one can only hope that more independent movies take that kind of naturalized freedom of sexual expression for granted. The sooner the cinema stops making a big deal out of sexual difference, the sooner audiences forget that it ever was one.
Margaret, for her part, provides the film with another sort of radical ideological suggestion: Her success validates independence. Again, this might seem insignificant, and the film avoids underlining the point as any kind of instructive thesis statement, but Nate & Margaret is the rare film to suggest that a middle-aged woman can find happiness without finding a romantic partner. Her story isn’t neatly wrapped up with the promise of true love; she begins the film jaded and suspicious of romance and ends the film much the same way. It’s supremely heartening that what’s essentially a romantic comedy can deliver a happy ending in which—spoiler warning—its protagonists end up with nobody but each other, totally platonic but nevertheless incredibly close and supportive friends. That’s why, no matter how traditional or conventional its jokes and side characters and musical cues, Nate & Margaret is anything but an ordinary indie comedy; nothing this radical or forward-thinking could be.
Not that Nate & Margaret shoves its progressive attitude down your throat. Part of what makes it so special is that it does all of this with subtlety and grace. It’s not what anybody would call a “political film,” even though its message is tacitly and importantly political. And on a completely superficial level, Nate & Margaret is just generally a wonderful rom-com, as funny and emotionally robust as any other. West is tremendously funny as Margaret, yes, but more impressive is the real sense of pathos she brings out in the character. Ross, too, proves to be a major talent; there’s a sort of vague sadness behind his eyes that completely sells the understated “dejected-youth” aspect of his character. Adloff himself sometimes veers toward glossiness, drifting into sun-kissed montage when his material might be better served shot clean, but the meat of his film is substantial enough that I never much minded the trimmings. This is Adloff’s first time behind the camera, and he’s clearly interested in developing an identifiable visual style. But he has something more valuable: an authorial voice. I’d like to hear what else he has to say.