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Emma Roberts, who is 27, is probably done playing teenagers and recent graduates, though you can never really say for sure. Roberts played teenager-ish characters for so long that she had stints as both a Sundance Queen (where her roles in The Winning Season, The Art of Getting By, and Celeste and Jesse Forever debuted) and an even less-heralded period as the Princess of Tribeca, with the likes of Palo Alto, Adult World, and Ashby bringing her movies to lower Manhattan (and not much further). She was a teen in all of them, so her newest Tribeca film still feels like a milestone, albeit of the nebulous sort that the title In a Relationship implies. Roberts plays Hallie, a twentysomething in a long-term relationship with Owen (Michael Angarano), a doofy guy who I’d describe as hemming and hawing over their level of commitment, except that he evades too much to even hem or haw as much as he wants to. When Owen loses his roommate, Hallie suggests that they could move in together. Instead, they break up, because Owen can’t commit to the number of years they’ve been dating, much less to a cohabitation (despite the fact that they spend most of their time together).
Emma Roberts does the heavy lifting in this movie, and not just because she’s good at delivering half-ironic young-neurotic dialogue, like her line about wanting to leave a party and go home: “I think I left a candle burning and it’s haunted me all afternoon.” (Or her suggestion for a heartbroken afternoon activity: “Can we look at pictures of sushi on Yelp?”) She also finds some sensibility, if not exactly sense, in the notion that Hallie would be terribly attached to Owen. Angarano, meanwhile, gives the opposite performance: He takes a guy who is, on paper, not especially interesting or even sympathetic, and makes him into a character you can actively root against. There’s something weirdly loud about his performance; he doesn’t spend the whole movie shouting, but he is overemphatic in a way you’d never guess from the frazzled little kid from Almost Famous. Owen is not particularly funny, not particularly nice, not particularly smart, not even especially handsome, and not in possession of any redeeming qualities apart from his occasional affection for Hallie.
This should not count, because how hard is it to find Emma Roberts charming? If anything, he’s below-average in that department. The movie’s other half, which is about Owen’s buddy Matt (Patrick Gibson) dating Hallie’s cousin Willa (Dree Hemingway), at least has some balance between both partners’ sweetness and their Los Angeleno insufferability. In a Relationship is crisply edited and moderately well-written, but it never earns its bittersweet ending note, and it sure doesn’t give Roberts the millennial rom-com she deserves.
Really, that movie might have been the neon-tinged online-but-IRL thriller Nerve, from a couple of years ago. But it wasn’t a big hit, and the truth is, Roberts is a Tribeca-scale star: She can be the lead in an indie movie, but getting her into a studio rom-com, something that barely exists at the moment, would take some more doing. It’s kind of amazing that she never found herself in a YA fantasy (beyond It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the YA adaptation for which she serves as a fantasy object), and kind of cool that she racked up a bunch of indies in the meantime, even though she played someone who was around about 18 for the better part of a decade. In a Relationship ages her up to normal, but it still feels like a grad movie of sorts; Hallie spends the movie ready to graduate into a relationship that means as much to her partner as it does to her. There’s something touching about that, and Roberts doesn’t shy away from the neediness or desperation there, either. She obviously feels some connection to this project; she’s credited here as an executive producer. Maybe next time she returns to Tribeca, it should be as a director. Or at least with another movie from the Nerve guys.