First Features is a Nigerian initiative dedicated to empowering a new generation of film directors who will bring their many talents and unique voices to the industry. The plan is to mentor and assist 12 first-time directors in making feature debuts. The first project in the lineup is Cake, directed by Prosper Edesiri. Love and Life is the second, with director Reuben Reng at the helm.
I didn’t know what to expect going into this film, especially given the title. Still, I hoped I was in for a good surprise. In the end, I realized that the generic title was merely a reflection of the generic content. Love and Life follows the lives of three women in a generic big city as they navigate friendship, grief, and the ups and downs of love– add one more character, and you have the premise of Sex and the City. This film’s most significant issue is that it does this ‘following’ in the most dispassionate way possible. The characters are drawn too broadly, and half the supporting cast seems like they do not want to be there. The conflict is also resolved too easily and quickly– I am not against having plots tied up in a nice, neat bow; however, if your resolution triggers raised eyebrows, sighs of disbelief and stunned silence, chances are said bow is neither nice nor neat.
Love and Life begins one morning when Ivy (Michelle Dede) receives a call from her daughter, Simi, who is studying in the United States. Simi has just been accepted into Princeton and Brown, two Ivy League schools; her dad, Dekunle (Chidi Mokeme), and her mom are proud. Ivy calls her friend, Abike (Rita Dominic), to share the good news, but Abike is locked in her room, still mourning the death of her husband. Ivy then calls Osas (Nse Ikpe-Etim), and they meet up before heading to Abike’s house. Her cook informs them that his madam hasn’t come out of her room or eaten in days. Without urgency, they head upstairs and attempt to cajole Abike out of her room. Ivy and Osas sit outside the locked door and reminisce about their former romantic partners until Abike emerges from the room and promises to grab lunch with them the following day.
These scenes are intended to set up the dynamic between the three friends and establish several plot threads. For instance, Osas offends her boy toy-turned-boyfriend, Dante (Ray Adeka), when she suggests he’s being extra romantic because he intends to leverage his gestures for money or gifts. Ivy and her husband are having marital troubles because he’s been giving her the cold shoulder (in the bedroom and without) for a while. Abike needs to step into her husband’s shoes and take over the running of the company, but she can’t do that or open herself to romance again (in the form of her husband’s friend, Zenom) while she’s still paralyzed by grief. These stories rarely lead to exciting conflict, and the stakes are not adequately communicated, making the narrative one big tepid bowl of soup.
The only compelling storyline is Abike’s grief, and the film explores it through multiple avenues (the flashback scene, the conversations with his pictures, and even the brilliant group therapy session towards the end). However, even this feels hurried because, for some reason, the script wants Abike and Zenom to start going on dates immediately.
On the flip side, I enjoyed several elements of Love and Life. The writing is clever in flashes. There are moments when it feels like the writer is ahead of the audience and uses that to pull good surprises or subvert expectations. A good example is how Abike tactfully handles her suspicions of Dekunle’s infidelity. Nse’s character, Osas, shines as the comic relief, especially towards the end. Rita Dominic as Abike is the emotional centre of the group and the film. For the most part, her grief is almost palpable, courtesy of an authentic performance– one wishes the directing and writing had fleshed out this character, giving her space to breathe. Dede has this doe-eyed look that makes you immediately root for her and pity her when her multiple attempts to seduce her husband prove abortive. But, like Dominic, the character doesn’t have much to do in the way of conflict. Mokeme has been great elsewhere, but in Love and Life, he acts like he’s just gotten out of bed, failing to enunciate properly; his performance is a flat line from beginning to end.
I am writing this review in a restaurant, and the TV is tuned to a cable music station which has been playing Afrobeat songs all evening. Half the time, the words come to me steadily, and my fingers hit the keys like a classically trained pianist showboating on Chopin. The other half, I’m unsure how to say what I want to say, and I freeze up. Like a classical pianist’s first time in a jazz band. In those moments, my eyes drift to the TV, and the lively visuals strike me before I hear the songs. I once heard a critic say of Steven Spielberg, “[Say what you will but] that man knows how to move a camera.” And he does. I can make a similar claim about Nigerian music video directors: Say what you will, but those guys at least move the camera. Sometimes, the movement is poetry; sometimes, it lacks rhyme and reason. But at least they move the camera.
A good chunk of Nollywood seems averse to camera movement. I understand it’s easier on location/stage to do different camera setups in a scene than to move the camera. For one, the latter makes the job of the focus puller (or 1st assistant camera) much more complicated. The solution here might be moving the actors, but this also comes with complications. Still, movement is an undeniable aspect of cinema. I believe many opportunities to visually represent character relationships and emotional states while lending some edge, some bite, to the narrative are lost when cameras are rarely moved. This is undoubtedly the case in Love and Life.
The camera isn’t completely static, as there are subtle dollies on objects now and then, but for the most part, we never get a subjective view of a character because the camera, without reason, keeps us at a distance. It always feels like we’re watching a cheap TV show. As you can expect, this is not a good fit for a drama that explores heavy topics such as grief and cancer, automatically requesting that we take it seriously. The viewer’s dilemma is that what they’re being shown (a lack of dynamism to the shots and characters) is at odds with what is being said or what they’re being told to feel.
Love and Life premiered on December 29, 2023, on Prime Video.
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- Take a sip of water whenever someone says “Osas.” Your kidneys will thank you.
- Like in A Sunday Affair, the cancer diagnosis in Love and Life comes out of nowhere. This time, it’s testicular cancer. Trust me, it will make your head spin when it shows up.
- The ‘daughter’ subplot also comes out of nowhere, making a grand appearance and vanishing like smoke.
- “You men are all the same. Abike is lucky her husband is dead.” Honestly? I thought this line was atrocious. It doesn’t make for good drama or comedy, either. The moment the words leave Ivy’s mouth, they crashland. Nothing about Ivy’s character says she would count Abike lucky for losing her husband, whom she loved so dearly that she refused to eat for days.
- “Tyrone was the only good man. That’s why God took him away from this world.” Another atrocious line from a supposedly good friend to someone who just lost her husband and is still grieving.