The art of romance is impractical. Throughout history, romance has been likened to gamble-like machinations, chiefly the lottery, a Ponzi scheme, or—to the most nihilistic—a game of Russian roulette. Naturally, all have been reluctant investors in love, and Joanne (Nadine Lustre) is only so strong to refuse resignation to romance and, as later she will learn, its great demands. Such is the message folded in “Never Not Love You,” the latest from romance’s agent of truth, Antoinette Jadaone—an ode to lovers who steadfastly love in the most unideal of environments, and does it still with such costly intensity. Gio (James Reid), smitten doubtless by Joanne on their first encounter, teases her early in the film, seemingly portentously: “Good art ain’t cheap.”
The film, so tender and truthful in its depiction of a modern romantic relationship, unfurls with as much pragmatism as its protagonists. Certainly, work life isn’t easy, and reality bites hard—of this Jade Castro’s had been our unassuming messenger in 2007’s “Endo”—and in the Philippines, it’s particularly cutthroat. The film’s central conflict is pressed against this reality lived by our millennial workforce every day, to toil away without the answer to the question nagged by our parents, our society, and ourselves: what do you want to do with your life? It is this question that enlivens Jadone’s endearing love story, which, innocently, begins with a variation of this insufferable internal dialogue. “How about you, what’s your thing,” asks Gio, to which Joanne merely shrugs, and says, rather awkwardly. “None yet. Just you, I guess.”
That moment is beautiful, casting the two in a sweet exchange which will later challenge their partnership. Joanne moved to the city for a better life, cautiously treading her career in order to help her family in the province. Gio, who lives alone in the city, aimlessly turns from one project to the next as a freelance graphic artist. At some point, they fall in love, and as that incredible “The Graduate”-inspired shot suggests, they fall out of love. But resting on the cushion of Jadaone’s creative helm is not a love story, but one of self-worth, of satisfying one’s existential woes in such daunting, often thankless areas of life. When people say this is JaDine’s most mature film so far, they’re referring to the use of love in this film, which, refreshingly, isn’t used here as a commodity.
Love story or otherwise, “Never Not Love You” looks gorgeous. Dan Villegas, the film’s director of photography and Jadaone’s real-life partner, captures Joanne and Gio’s romance blossom and wither, adding with ample dashes of vividness and grime. The film’s arguably sweetest moment, which sits the two among tall golden meadows, echoes to my eyes Agnes Vardas’ heart-rending 1965 drama, “Le bonheur” (Eng. lit: “Happiness”), and Claude Monet’s painting, “Evening in the Meadow of Giverny” (1888). “Never Not Love You” is fo far Jadaone’s most beautiful film, and that can be said quite literally as well.
Placed at the fore of everything are James Reid and Nadine Lustre, both able performers who gamely rise to the maturity of Jadaone’s material. Lustre offers the film boundless energy and charisma, but paints Joanne with an astute sense of fraught and uncertainty. In the film’s most emotional moment, Joanne drives her family for the first time in her new car. She’s offered praises from her mother and her siblings, but in an awkward silence thereafter, she carefully glances at her father, who finally submits and gives her a tap on the shoulder. That moment is earned and so affecting, the culmination of everything Joanne has been vying for and grappling with. Reid’s character, Gio, only has his own’s validation to seek, and it is here that the film falls short of being perfect. Had there been greater context to Gio’s conflicts, his arc will have been just as crucial and therefore triumphant as Joanne’s.
When all is said and done, after the two have soldiered past their romantic hiccups and have hit their individual goals, the film’s nagging question remains, and even birthed another one. “And then what,” rings to an angrier, more frustrated follow-up on “What do you want to do with your life?” In the film’s final stretched moments, the question is turned at us.