About Alex is a love letter to college relationships and the necessary evolution of human interaction. The film is entertaining in its honesty, and it is a triumph in its ability to keep every member of its ensemble cast interesting and engaging throughout. The film does, however, feel anachronistic or perhaps targeted more for a specific kind of college experience that may leave many viewers disconnected. Yet, while it doesn’t really say anything grand or provide deep insight into the human condition, About Alex is very well done and is a satisfying cinematic presentation.
Several years after graduating and venturing forth into their separate careers, college friends Ben (Nate Parker), Siri (Maggie Grace), Josh (Max Greenfield), Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), and Isaac (Max Minghella) drop everything they’re doing to come together and spend a long weekend with their mutual college friend Alex (Jason Ritter) after he attempts to kill himself. The time spent together has these friends reminiscing over old times, exploring their present circumstances, and making life-changing decisions as they realize that they aren’t the same people they were in college – for better or worse.
An ensemble film like About Alex lives and dies by the quality of its writing and its cast. Thankfully, both are outstanding here, with the writing slightly being the stronger of the two. The script is intelligent and timely, positioning social networks, which are meant to keep people connected, as tools that actually disconnect people. More than simply a good concept, the script also provides excellent characterization and interesting dialogue, which allows each character to feel wholly unique. In turn, the cast has enough material to work with to craft tangible histories that come through in their portrayals. Unfortunately, the necessary evil of good material and ensemble casts is not enough runtime to develop each interesting character beyond their archetypes or plot requirements. Nevertheless, all of the actors carry their own weight and are given their own moments to shine.
There are a few moments of disconnection and missed opportunities in the writing. It seems obvious that writer/director Jesse Zwick drew from personal experience for the script. As such, the vibe of this particular group of college friends may feel out of sync with many viewers. For one, all of the characters – Alex excepted – look like they did well for themselves after graduating. None of them are unemployed, under employed or employed in a field that doesn’t match their education. Where is the business major turned barista crushed under college debt because the lousy job market isn’t offering anything better? Instead, things are going well enough that one character is able to fund another character’s decision to leave her job as an attorney to open a restaurant. So when another character laments how the current economic conditions are resulting in diminished earnings, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for these characters, who ostensibly belong to a class far above most viewers.
Additionally, more time could have been spent exploring the nature of social networks and their effect on real-life relationships. At the start of the film, Alex broadcasts his suicide attempt in the form of a status update. Later, the group discusses how Alex had been posting distressing content that everyone purposefully ignored. Beyond these moments, not much more is said on the topic, which is disappointing, because online relationships are so ubiquitous and is a topic that is ripe for commentary in a film like About Alex.
On the positive side, Jesse Zwick deserves special mention for writing a very reasonable film and then executing a production that manages to make a small, single location feel varied enough to stay visually interesting. The final result is a film that is a wonderful example of small budget filmmaking. About Alex is a labor of love, and it shows all the way from its inception to its final presentation. And just as the story of the film is ultimately a message of hope, the film itself also inspires hope that quality, original and entertaining films are still possible.