Movies have had an uneasy relationship with the internet since at least the days of ubiquitous American Online diskettes. Whenever a movie (especially a clunkily humanist one like noted non-classic Men, Women and Children) expresses any alarm about the pitfalls of digital technology, anyone with online levels of medium or above tends to point and laughs—and not for nothing do so many members of a particular subgenre have the adjective “paranoia” inserted between “internet” and “thriller.” Really, though, who can blame the movies for their paranoia? Anyone who spends a reasonable (read: unreasonable) amount of time online will readily admit what a cesspool it is, then gaslight any movies that agree with them—and that was before the internet enabled a haphazard half-dismantling of the already-fragile big-studio movie pipeline. This makes it all the more impressive that Celine Song’s new movie Past Lives sees the internet, particularly social media, with such clarity, and depicts it with such restraint.
That’s typical of the movie of the movie in general, which is not principally about digital technology, but rather a pair of young friends with middle-school crushes on each other who are separated, then reunited decades later. If the movie is a romance, it’s one of bittersweet small gestures and longing looks—the small spaces in between major life decisions.
The precise timing of this non-couple’s fate is what makes Facebook central to the story, though the site is only mentioned in passing, if at all, mostly glimpsed in the corners of the screen. Past Lives begins around the turn of the millennium, when Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are both twelve years old. Their courtship – half close friendship, half nascent romance, and consisting of exactly one date – is interrupted by Na Young’s family moving to Canada at a time when email and instant messaging are popular but haven’t attained the global reach or ubiquity of Facebook. When the movie skips forward a dozen years, Facebook is more commonplace, which is how Na Young, now rechristened Nora (Greta Lee) and living in New York City as a twentysomething, reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), still in Korea. Videochatting allows them some measure of togetherness, part of each other’s lives while sequestered from the everyday business of living. They lose touch again, and don’t see each other in person for another dozen years, when Hae Sung visits New York. He doesn’t exactly have ulterior motives, but he can’t quite disguise the degree to which Nora lingers in his mind.
Anyone who has ever begun, developed, or shifted a relationship in a digital space will recognize the strange mix of intense connection and start-stop awkwardness that Nora and Hae Sung experience IRL. Filmmakers can be self-conscious about how to translate this dynamic; it’s probably not a coincidence that one of the most famous movies about an online relationship is You’ve Got Mail, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan develop an in-person rapport, however contentious, without realizing (at least at first) that they’re each other’s AOL-chat soulmates. Whether she had that particular awkwardness in mind or not while writing and directing Past Lives, Song seems to intuitively understand that relationships that have been helped along by digital intermediary don’t automatically fizzle or flounder in person, but can move at a different pace (especially for people who are not portrayed as digital natives). She gives the characters their distance, at one point observing their conversation from a vantage above their Brooklyn Bridge Park position, slowly moving the camera so it will eventually catch them as they arrive around a bend in the sidewalk. She captures fleeting moments of physical contact—hands brushing on a subway pole, for example—without turning up the melodramatic anguish.
All of this longing happens in person, of course, and much of it echoes the tentativeness of the characters’ youthful connection in the film’s earliest scenes. At the same time, it feels crucial that the film isn’t as neatly symmetrical as observing Nora and Hae Sung as children for the first half, and adults for the second. Without saying so, the movie also takes note of how social media can expand and contract time. Almost more remarkable than Nora and Hae Sung rediscovering each other twelve years after their tweenage separation is that second twelve-year gap, where their relationship (such as it is) idles in the background, neither as active as their videochatting days nor as removed as their initial memories of each other as children. From what we can tell, it becomes like an email account or website they used to refresh multiple times per day, and now only check occasionally. When the pair meets again for real, they’re simultaneously attempting to close a massive 24-year gap and, less epically, following up on a more recent adult friendship that doesn’t necessarily fit who they are now. For one thing, Nora is married, to a seemingly nice guy and sensitive played by John Magaro with full awareness of how he might look like an obstacle to someone else’s happy ending.
In Past Lives, the internet doesn’t hasten or impede whatever ending is in store for these people, any more than Nora’s husband does. In fact, it’s a decidedly old-fashioned technical device, a simple cut, that took my breath away and had me welling up in one perfect instant. For the characters, though, technology functions almost like a translator, allowing Nora and Hae Sung digital windows into their past selves that aren’t as static as simply flipping through old photos. Facebook keeps those images (and self-images) alive, but there’s only so many miracles technology can perform; recognizing our past selves doesn’t necessarily bring them back to life. Past Lives is more tactile than what we typically associate with an “internet movie”; the chat windows rarely come in for a close-up, and the virtual world looks a lot like our own, only in crummier resolution. Yet what it depicts, in such gently poetic terms, would not be possible without some form of social media, making for a stark contrast with the multitude of thrillers that must either work around technological innovations (no cell service out here!) or juice them for anxieties (with smartphones, it’s easier than ever for the call to be coming from inside the house). The movie doesn’t register this connectivity as a seismic change so much as a natural outgrowth of our own desires—and as ultimately unsolvable as our own moments of wistful longing for the past. The internet is not real life, some of us are fond of reminding ourselves. But maybe real life has been the internet this whole time.