Romantic comedies are extremely hard to do nowadays. There hasn’t been a genre that has been done to death as much as romantic comedies. It’s hard to find a fresh idea that, at the same time, speaks to a contemporary audience and also manages to have that timeless quality about it. Puppy Love isn’t quite timeless, but it sure does manage to be relevant in its themes. So many young people find themselves falling into the traps of loneliness and hedonism these days, which can partially be attributed to social media and the recent pandemic, but it is the inner struggle of opening up to somebody that has been a problem for many years now. That is what the film actually explores while having the brilliant idea of introducing the lovely dogs, through which the film derives most of its lightheartedness and becomes a really well-executed romantic comedy.
Directed by Nick Fabiano and Richard Alan Reid, Puppy Love is a story about Max and Nicole, whose lives get entangled when their dogs decide to walk their own path of becoming dam and sire. As is the case in the rom-com genre, the situation has to be kept from tipping over to the gloomy side. The characters in this story are dealing with extremely serious issues, which is why the idea of depicting the story with the element of dogs works so well. It keeps the story fun and entertaining while also getting the point across in a relatively fresh manner. The film’s other surprising element is how relevant it feels. Much of it is done through the characters, who never seem dated and seem to be dealing with the same issues as the modern generation.
Max, a man working in front of a computer, is afraid to go to work after the pandemic as he has developed a debilitating case of social anxiety. He has started to loathe people because that’s the only form his fear can take without hurting his identity. He is seeking therapy, and it is not so certain that he will come out of his rut. On the surface, this character seems too dark to even be in a rom-com, but when the therapist asks Max to adopt a dog and form a connection with it before making one out in the real world, the story’s tonality suddenly feels right for the genre. Similarly, Nicole’s character faces issues after her father’s death. She wanted to pursue a career in art but couldn’t even go to college because of the unfortunate incident and instead decided to go into home staging. She tried to use the fact that it was for high-end luxury real estate almost as a crutch to keep her morale from sinking.
At one point, it becomes apparent that the symmetrical narrative will have both halves of this love story, Max and Nicole, dabble in introspection when they come across their dogs. They come close because of the dogs, and they become the catalyst for their characters to go through some tough changes. The writers do a great job of finding funny scenes as fillers to give the film some breathing space and not feel as if it is roaring like a train toward the conclusion. The scene with the veterinary doctor, who first appears when he tells Nicole that her dog Channing is neutered, is funny because he was wrong and later does a U-turn on his observation and concludes that it could indeed procreate. The scene where Max and his boss/friend Sid go to buy a pregnancy termination pill for his dog Chloe is hilarious, as the lady at the counter doesn’t offer them what they need. Instead, she hilariously rebukes them, and they run off like children looking to buy some illicit magazines. Another thing the writers did was perhaps reverse the gender roles. Previously, female characters have been treated like neat freaks and introverted, and the knight in shimmering armor comes to show them the world. Here, Max’s character likes to stay indoors, which is justified by his anxiety issues, and he is the one who cannot stand Nicole’s shabbiness. The witty dialogue also helps in establishing Nicole and Max’s temperaments.
The film had the potential to be extremely probing, which would have made the writers get into a conundrum of resolving the conflict, which is why I think the film played only at the surface. Characters like Hunter, who could have been love interests, were reduced to comic relief because the dogs were the focus. The film couldn’t go into the love triangle trope. But it also prevented the film from being hard-hitting. Nicole brought Hunter to Max’s house, perhaps for a one-night stand, even though she had been staying there only because Max had allowed her to. It wasn’t her house. She was there purely because of the arrangement—that they would not let Channing and Chloe stay apart just because they got off on the wrong foot. The conflict was quite easily resolved as Nicole used Channing to wear the tag, which had Nicole’s apology written on it. Max did not hold a grudge either and forgave her.
Puppy Love has to be praised for its soundtrack. There are a couple of songs that are so breezy and never feel out of place. They communicate what the characters are feeling. The performances by the two lead actors, Lucy Hale and Grant Gustin, are also praiseworthy. They don’t push their lines or build up a scene for unnecessary comedic or dramatic effect. They look comfortable in their own skin and play their parts at exactly the right pitch. The writing helps them, as the words sound very contemporary, and the rhythm is engaging. The scenes never lag, and the performances never seem dry, even if the story takes a predictable turn. There is a chemistry between the characters that feels fresh and not forced. The performances by other actors are also on par, although they had very little to do with the actual story. The film tried to give every character something of an arc, but it just may not have been possible, given that the film does seem to drag in some parts.
Puppy Love is a fresh take on contemporary love stories. With people either withdrawing from the dating scene altogether due to mental health issues or drowning themselves in meaningless flings only to avoid real connection, the film touches on all these topics in a manner that doesn’t get preachy or monotonous. If you are a dog lover, this film will melt your heart, as the two dogs who play Channing and Chloe are just the most lovable creatures put on screen recently. So if you are in the mood for a lighthearted movie that has the bonus of featuring cute dogs and gives you much-needed laughs and also the hope for a real connection, Puppy Love might just be it.