There’s a type of science fiction which comes up with a fantastic device or social trend or circumstance that would utterly change the way everyone behaved and then builds a drama around disapproving of it. This only works when there’s a sense that the invented aspect highlights the absurdities of the way things actually are. This assured debut from writer-director Jac Schaeffer – later the creator of WandaVision – is a rom-com equivalent to Minority Report. In a parallel present, most Americans have been fitted with wrist implants that count down to the day on which they are destined to meet their true love/life partner/soul mate. This has eliminated the heartbreak of divorce and the trauma of uncertain relationships, but still contrives to screw folks up in different ways.
Oona (Emma Caulfield), an orthodontist about to turn thirty, is getting jittery about her status because her timer is blank – which implies that ‘the One’ out there for her hasn’t been fitted (there’s no consideration of the possibility he doesn’t exist or that they’ll never meet). Steph (Michelle Borth, in what should have been a star-making turn that put the days of Komodo vs. Cobra behind her forever), Oona’s stepsister/best friend, has a timer which indicates she’s not going to be partnered til she’s 43 and is passing the time with attachments-free promiscuity. The film also suggests that their brother, who is fitted with a timer when he turns sixteen, and learns he’ll meet his partner in three days, is almost as traumatised by the sudden mapping-out of his future, especially when it turns out the girl is the daughter of the housekeeper his controlling Mom (JoBeth Williams) has hired as a status symbol. Oona starts seeing a much younger musician (John Patrick Amedori), who seems to have a timer which gives him four months to go, but is actually sporting a fake … and Steph meets a widower (Desmond Harrington) who doesn’t want a timer because he feels he’s already had his one allotted relationship.
Schaeffer explores every possible variation on the way this machine would affect people, with as much attention to the heroine’s family as her possible partners — the most emotional moment comes when what ought to be a happy ending (Oona’s timer finally pings) comes close to making everyone miserable as they have to drop promising (but now doomed) relationships to get on an allotted track that has been imposed on them and Oona admits to Steph that her sister is her soul mate even if not her love interest. The possibility that true love, ruling out even serial monogamy, would become oppressive is a hard sell for a rom-com, but interesting – Oona’s mother left her father (Muse Watson) because their timers convinced them they were wrong for each other though married, but Oona exists because of this ‘mistake’ and resents her timer-boosting mother’s insistence on a one-track life.
It’s not cut-and-dried, but does offer resolution and possible fulfilment – even though there are loose ends (will Oona’s estranged father, a legendary record producer, like the boy’s garage band?) and some useful, credible mess. Caulfield, who was the demon on Buffy, is wonderful in the lead and ought to get more plum work, and the supporting cast are all excellent (Amedori especially in a tough part). The timer is the only gadget in the film, which is otherwise rooted in smart observation and believable clutter – the way the 22-year-old muso responds to the near-thirty heroine’s sweet reminiscence of her childhood idea of what bands were like by asking ‘who are the Bangles?’ and the grace note that the Mexican girl has heard of his band and likes it in a way that makes Oona and her family reconsider their opinion that he’s a supermarket check-out guy.