The age-old premise of two friends–one male, one female (yeah, yeah it’s all so gender normative)–who can’t see what’s right in front of them is nothing new in cinema. From When Harry Met Sally to Boys and Girls, the tale is clearly grounded in some level of reality, considering how often screenwriters and directors revisit it. Slow Learners, co-directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (perhaps it takes both genders to create an accurate depiction of slowly building romance), does its best to enhance the time-honored concept by making its protagonists, Jeff Lowry (Adam Pally) and Anne Martin (Sarah Burns), as socially retarded as possible so as to make it believable that they can’t fathom that the other is perfect for him or her.
Because they both work at the same school, Jeff as a guidance counselor, Anne as a librarian, they share a bond over the ostracism they feel among their students, infinitely cooler and more sexually active than they are. Anne, who is mousy and demure, takes pleasure in playing a quote game with Jeff, during which she recites the aphorism of a famous author and waits for Jeff to guess who said it. Jeff is usually never quick enough for Anne. With the tag line, “Born to Be Mild,” it’s clear that both Jeff and Anne suffer from a certain dissatisfaction with being complacent, rule-obeying denizens incapable of drawing the opposite sex’s attention.
Fed up with their collective ineptitude in matters of love and no frills fucking, Jeff and Anne vow to change their personality and appearance entirely over the summer so as to live the sort of “wild” life that everyone else around them seems to be capable of. Anne opts for more extreme measures than Jeff over time, modeling her persona after a trashy reality TV star on a show called Prisoner of Love. Jeff, meanwhile pretends to get a tattoo of a book on his forearm and engages in a bar fight that attracts the attention of two women. Each acts in over the top ways that one would expect to fail miserably due to how cliche the moves are, and yet, maybe cliches exist purely to reinforce just how predictable people are–especially when it comes to attraction.
Unfortunately, Anne and Jeff’s newfound cachet to other prospects means that they soon begin drifting apart from one another–though Jeff is the one more prone to doing so as he starts up a relationship with single mother Beth (Mary Grill), who knows him from the periphery of her son’s attendance at the school. Hurt to learn that Jeff has been dating Beth without telling her, Anne makes an even bigger spectacle about her dalliance with Jeff’s next door neighbor, Max (Reid Scott).
Of course, all the while it’s evident that something is boiling beneath the surface, it’s just a matter of bad timing on Anne’s part, who never seemed to realize that Jeff liked her before, just as she was (to loosely quote Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary). But now that she admits to herself her own feelings for Jeff, it is seemingly too late.
But what would a rom-com be if bad timing couldn’t be corrected? In Slow Learners‘ case, Matt Serword’s at times credibility lacking script brings our two love challenged heroes together through the ultimate in nerdish emblems: a sort of library scavenger hunt that leads Anne outside to find Jeff waiting for her Jake Ryan-style in Sixteen Candles. And while it’s a relief that they finally learned they belonged together, there is nothing compelling about how they at last came to apprehend this information–via the method of acting like archetypal trainwrecks (particularly Anne).