‘If You Were The Last’ Review: Zoë Chao Confirms Rom-Com Reign

SXSW: Kristian Mercado debuts sci-fi rom-com that shoots to the moon — and lands — thanks to two charismatic stars.

If this had been the last romantic comedy of 2023, it would have been a great year for rom-coms.

“If You Were the Last” officially marks the Hollywood takeover of lead character Zoë Chao. After stealing scenes in Netflix’s comeback rom-com “Your Place or Mine” and as a welcome addition to Season 3 of “Party Down,” Chao leads the indie sci-fi romantic comedy opposite Anthony Mackie. The already formidable charisma of the two leads goes off the charts when they are placed next to each other. The chemistry? This is out of this world.

Chao plays astronaut Captain Jane, who is trapped in a drifting spaceship with her lieutenant, scientist Adam (Mackie). Three years into the NASA mission, Jane and Adam are lost, alone with each other, counting down the days to inevitable starvation. Set in the not-so-distant future where Matt Damon is still around (and still a name-check-worthy celebrity), the film adds a charming familiarity to a film still rooted in the present. Wes-Anderson-meets-West-Elm mid-century modern sets and whimsical practical effects that show a ship flying by Saturn and Jupiter make the quirky indie film not only weird, but even more inventive.

Jane is determined to save them, while Adam excels at bending fate. However, both astronauts are pretty tame, knowing they’re going to die soon, but doing so on their own terms. A cute “Shit Got Real!” The day they both realized they were stuck is marked on the calendar. Jane keeps trying to fix the boat, and Adam grows blueberries and marijuana on board (that’s a thing). They have a goat for milk, two chickens for fresh eggs, and their own mini garden of Eden in a greenhouse. Jane is fine with listening to tapes and using her Walkman during the day, as long as she can convince Adam to watch “Die Hard” instead of “Casablanca” during their nightly movie ritual.

The only problem? Well, sex.

As “When Harry Met Sally” taught us, straight men and women never know really just be friends without acknowledging the elephant in the room. And the elephant in the case of “If You Were The Last One” is that Jane steps into Adam’s “milky” output (you get the idea).

It is only after more than 1,000 days on board that Adam suggests they explore more than a friend relationship with Jane. Adam states that sex is a stress reliever for him. He tries to convince Jane by promising that he’ll “bang,” that he’ll be “emotion-free,” but Jane can’t help but list the reasons why it doesn’t make sense to change their dynamic (note, he’s built several vibrators in the construction industry drills). For one, they are both married to other people, played by Natalie Morales and Geoff Stults. But do wedding bands really matter in space?

Sure, “If You Were the Last” could easily be labeled a sex comedy (it’s not) or a sci-fi movie (minus Jane and Adam in “Alien,” not really). It’s definitely a rom-com and that’s because Mackie and Chao give us the best time to roam, laugh and dance in a pandemic lockdown type situation. The simplest allegory would be that quarantine either drives people apart or brings them closer together, and sometimes distance really doesn’t make the heart stronger. Isn’t watching movies together in matching sweaters a kind of marriage?

Everything from “space dolls” to “Avenue 5” to the typical ways of returning to Earth are discussed and dissected in a silly, sometimes wacky, but always engaging way. Add in a slog of “It Happened One Night,” set against the backdrop of the galaxy just outside their window, and we have a refreshing rom-com worthy of instant binge-watching.

Only when Adam and Jane are faced with a stark choice—travel back to Earth and quit their budding romance, or stay together and wait it out—do they end their flirtation. As Jane and Adam make the three-week journey back to earth, they fall for each other and wonder what the real world will be like when they return.

They promise to remain the best friends on Earth no matter what, and it’s only when Chao and Mackie aren’t the only stars on screen that the well-paced film falters in the third act. This isn’t a dig at the cast, just Chao and Mackie that great together.

Mackie, the MCU’s new Captain America, is developing his ability to balance the indies, and give us hope that “If You Were the Last” isn’t his last small-budget project as the next Marvel phase begins. Mackie shows his full range as Adam, who is always smitten with Jane.

But this is Chao’s film through and through. During an emotional scene when Jane’s tape breaks, Chao instantly switches from dancing fun to collapsing under the weight of existential dread. Mackie, singing Lionel Ritchie, is not just a reprieve but a lifeline, and Chao shifts again, this time into a hopeful gear, deepening the on-screen connection with Mackie in one scene.

If You Were the Last was written by Angela Bourassa, whose screenplay was listed as one of the best unmade screenplays of 2020 on the Black List, and for good reason. Director Kristian Mercado masterfully spotlights the talents of Bourassa, Mackie, and Chao in his feature film debut, and it’s like a match made in heaven, or space itself.

Rating: B

“If You Were the Last” premieres at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Currently looking for distribution.

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