Emily is a neurotic graduate level student studying to become a librarian. Mateo is more free spirited and struggling in an American Literature undergraduate course. After a brief meeting and reluctant negotiation, Emily agrees to tutor Mateo three times a week at a park bench. At first, the pair seems to be completely incompatible, but this is a romantic comedy so you know it will not be long before they discover they have things in common; including feelings for each other.
Of course, it isn’t all smooth sailing. To begin with, Emily is already engaged when she meets Mateo. And Mateo has his own “relationships”. Secrets not shared, a serious yet funny sign, and Emily’s big day threaten Emily and Mateo’s potential courtship. As heartwarming and funny as the rom-com story plays out, what is really interesting about The Park Bench is the park bench.
Or rather, the fact that about 95% of this movie takes place on or near that park bench. All present day scenes, save one or two, show a few moments or less of various tutoring sessions which are all on the park bench thanks to Mateo’s interest in studying outdoors as opposed to the reserved library room that Emily wanted. Sometimes we only get a fragment of a conversation, a glimpse into their lives as it were, and we are left to extrapolate what has happened or what will happen; while other times, we get a whole heartfelt segment of their blossoming relationship.
To complement the scenes on the bench, there are also brief animated scenes and a couple live action flashbacks. The animated scenes are beautifully illustrated (by Natia Nikolashvili)and tell an intriguing side/back story that is impressively narrated by the character that is choosing to open their heart a little bit more. The live action flashbacks were almost as good and provide a nice interlude to the continuous sight of the park bench.
Without the animation and flashbacks, the story flows almost like a live theater play might flow. This requires a slightly higher suspension of disbelief than is normally needed when watching a rom-com. Since all the action, drama, comedy, and dialogue has to take place on or near the park bench, believability gets stretched a bit. For example, the film needs to show that Mateo has his own love interests (of sorts) prior to developing something with Emily, so they show him making out with a random girlfriend on the park bench where he is supposed to meet Emily (who, naturally, interrupts them). When either Emily or Mateo isn’t present (for … reasons), the other is calling from the park bench even if it sometimes seems that that phone call should have taken place between the sessions (at home away from the park bench).
Setting aside these non-issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It is delightful and entertaining and writer/director Ann LeSchander manages to break down a potentially complex story to the bare essentials with two people conversing, sharing personal stories and laughter, and falling for each other even if they shouldn’t. That isn’t to say there aren’t other characters in the film; among others, we do get to meet the “fiancé”. But, the movie clearly belongs to Mateo and Emily who are portrayed with genuine depth by Walter Perez (Friday Night Lights, The Avengers) and Nicole Hayden (8 Simple Rules, Mad Men), respectively.