Jon lives in a world where physical intimacy of any sort can lead to grotesque physical transformation, thanks to a virus that hijacks romantic desire.
But amidst this world, Jon is lonely and decides to risk his life for human connection, especially when he meets Maya, the only match he’s made on his dating app. But things with Maya start to go wrong even before they officially meet, as the virus starts to wreak havoc on Jon’s body.
This dystopian sci-fi romance — directed by J.J. Shpall and written by Shpall and Eric Brewster — takes a hypothetical question as a jumping point: what if there was a world where romantic love just couldn’t exist? And is love worth the pain and agony it can spark within us when it doesn’t work?
From there, the narrative travels to unexpected, unusual places, as it explores the fears and longings humans experience when it comes to the search for romantic connection. The tone is both quirky and melancholic, a mix also encapsulated by its visual approach, which is shadowy, yet with an antiseptic sheen that marks many modern sci-fi films. There is a studied distance in the visual compositions of the film, emphasizing a world where people keep one another at arms’ length.
The storytelling builds a somber world grounded in dystopian vision, yet within this frame, characters still awkwardly bumble, freak out and overthink as they put themselves on the line for love. The collision of these emotions with this eccentrically conceived world is both ironically funny and thought-provoking, but the film has a steadiness that keeps the focus on human emotions and keeps it from veering into farce.
Many viewers will recognize much of the short’s excellent cast, from “Silicon Valley” actor Josh Brener to Lauren Lapkus (from “Orange Is the New Black”) to even Larry Hankin (known to many “Friends” fans as the downstairs neighbor Mr. Heckles). Collectively they’re able to achieve a detached understatement in their performances that suits the film’s tone, but they keep their pulse always on the genuine emotions of longing and loneliness that fuel the characters’ arcs. All of these feelings keep the film emotionally grounded, and endow it with poignancy and resonance, especially as Jon finally goes on his much-longed-for date and achieves a connection — though not quite in the way he expected.
“Date Nite” was conceived of and made before COVID-19, but its release uncannily echoes the anxieties around physical contact, as well as the diffuse yet pervasive loneliness that happens with prolonged isolation. As a result, it may just be the first romantic comedy in the era of social distancing, and a line of dialogue like “You are not alone in your aloneness” can’t help but take on new meaning.
But even before these times, “Date Nite” captures the growing emotional distance between people and within themselves, whether it’s via the perfunctoriness of a job or a certain flatness in connecting over an app instead of real life. In this gaping, arid space, it’s easy for us to build expectations and ideas, only for real life to puncture them with imperfection. The only remedy may be a willingness to be brave about our vulnerabilities and longings, even just to ourselves. In risking our hearts for love and connection, we may go out on a limb (and even lose it) — but we may gain the only thing that bridges the distance.