For anyone who has rewatched genre classics like Sleepless in Seattle or the entire Nancy Meyers oeuvre one too many times (yes, it’s possible), these underrated films directed by lesser-known female directors breathe fresh life into the romance genre with characters and plots that are as endearing as the heart is complex.
Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
In this quirky Brooklyn-set romantic dramedy writer/director Desiree Akhavan plays an awkward bisexual Iranian woman (Shirin) who is processing her breakup with the last woman she loved in her own messy way by latching onto new partners, jumping careers, and buying new adult underwear—all while trying to keep her conservative parents in the dark.
Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong (dir. Emily Ting)
This indie written and directed by Emily Ting is perfect for fans of the walking and talking style of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight trilogy. Real life married couple Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg play Ruby and Josh, two strangers whose lives are forever changed after a chance meeting outside of a bar in Hong Kong. They wander around the city and enjoy something you rarely see on screen—good conversation!
Keep the Change (dir. Rachel Israel)
David (Brandon Polansky), an antisocial and morose wannabe filmmaker, is ordered by a judge to participate in a support group for adults on the autism spectrum at his local Jewish Community Center. While there he meets Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) a bubbly twenty-four-year old ballbuster who refuses to let him shirk off group activities. Previously unlucky in love, David begins to warm to Sarah’s charm and the story follows him as he experiences the highs and lows of his first serious relationship. Keep the Change is unexpectedly sweet and it’s also the rare film about characters with autism that actually cast actors with autism to play the roles.
Going The Distance (dir. Nanette Burstein)
While Drew Barrymore is known as one of the great romantic comedy leads of the late nineties and early-mid aughts, she’s rarely starred in one directed by a woman. In Going the Distance Burstein delivers a big budget romcom about all the comedy and heartbreak that ensues when a couple tries to make a long distance relationship work between San Francisco and New York City that actually delivers on laughs.
Everybody Loves Somebody (dir. Catalina Aguilar Mastretta)
In this bilingual romcom, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta shows off a different side of Mexico. There are no guns, drug cartels, or any other overused stereotype of modern Mexican life. How to Get Away With Murder’s Karla Souza is a charming and confident yet commitment-phobic doctor who needs to find a date to her parent’s wedding in Mexico. Its fresh look at the nexus of Mexican and American culture is a delight to watch and the production design could hold its own against even the best Nancy Meyers movie.
A Couch In New York, dir. Chantal Akerman
In this overlooked 90s gem, a Parisian dancer (Juliette Binoche) and a famous NYC psychotherapist (William Hurt) participate in a home exchange to get away from their own lives for a bit but when he comes back early and they finally meet in person, sparks fly. The film doesn’t operate at the rushed pace of American romantic comedies. Akerman’s unhurried approach to telling a love story helps it unfold slowly and gently and is that much richer for it.
Friends with Kids (dir. Jennifer Westfeldt)
Jennifer Westfeldt made her directorial debut in this uproariously funny and romantic film about two longtime best friends played by herself and Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott who decide to have a baby together while maintaining a strictly platonic relationship. The news comes as a shock to their friends—a star-studded group consisting of Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd and Megan Fox—who are forced to adjust to their new normal.
Paris Je T’aime
In this series of short films directors from around the world were tasked with crafting vignettes located in (and often inspired by) each of Paris’s unique arrondissements or neighborhoods. Only three of the films are directed by women and of those, only two are love stories, but the women who helmed them made sure to spend their allotted time wisely; both vignettes function as beautifully constructed short films. In Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s “Quais de Seine” a sensitive college-age Parisian boy leaves his rowdy friends to talk to a young Muslim woman who catches his eye. In French director Isabel Coixet’s “Bastille” a couple whose marriage is on the rocks falls back in love with one another after one of them is diagnosed with a fatal disease.
Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener)
Comedy legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars opposite the late great James Gandolfini in one of his last film roles in this sweet romcom for grownups. Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced single parent who has to juggle her new relationship with Gandolfini’s character Albert with a promising new friendship with a woman who just so happens to be his ex-wife.
Take This Waltz (dir. Sarah Polley)
Michelle Williams plays the neglected wife of a chef (Seth Rogen) who is busy writing a cookbook who starts an affair with their handsome and free-spirited neighbor (Luke Kirby) who is happy to pay her the attention her husband won’t.
Jean of the Joneses (dir. Stella Meghie)
The Globe and Mail called this debut from Canadian filmmaker Stella Meghie “a genuine comic-mystery romcom.” Jean (Taylour Paige) is a floundering writer who is part of a Jamaican-American family full of strong-willed women on whose doorstep an elderly man appears before quickly dropping dead. His death prompts Jean to unravel the various mysteries of her family and fall for the paramedic (Mamoudou Athie) who paid them a house call in the process in this smart, dry-witted coming of age story. Meghie also directed two more standout romantic movies, 2017’s big budget teen romance Everything Everything and 2018’s The Weekend, which premiered at TIFF to rave reviews.
Sleeping With Other People (dir. Leslye Headland)
Headland gives us an updated—and slightly raunchier—When Harry Met Sally in this indie romcom. Alison Brie and SNL alum Jason Sudeikis play two people who had a brief fling in college and run into each other years later as adults struggling to make their respective relationships work. They become each other’s relationship coaches but that arrangement is quickly compromised when they end up falling for each other instead.
Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
Was this a star-making vehicle for comedian Jenny Slate? Yes. Are there still people who have not seen it? Also yes! Which means this is severely underrated. Robespierre’s story about a woman who has an abortion after a hookup and then ends up falling for the guy (Jake Lacy) is a modern classic and it also features one of the most romantic scenes in a movie that isn’t a love scene (hint: it involves butter).
A New Leaf (dir. Elaine May)
Though she is best known for the movie she directed after this one, Heartbreak Kid, this 1971 romcom written and directed by, and also co-starring Elaine May proves she was always someone to watch. Walter Matthau delights in the role he plays best, a grumpy old man. As Henry Graham, he is a rich man who loses his fortune and makes a deal with his wealthy uncle for a loan to keep up his lavish lifestyle “needs” (a Ferrari, a butler). The uncle agrees on the condition that he has six weeks to find a rich single woman to marry in order to pay back the loan. Henry is thrilled when he finds the perfect mark—a meek heiress and botanist played by writer-director Elaine May herself.
Attenberg (dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
In this comically straight-faced art house feature from Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari, Marina (Ariane Labed) is a late bloomer in her twenties who spends her days taking care of her terminally ill father and watching Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentaries. When an engineer (Yorgos Lanthimos) comes to her sleepy industrial town and piques her interest, she begins to open herself up to the adventures of adulthood with the help of her more outgoing and sexually experienced best friend. It’s an offbeat romance nestled within a wonderfully odd but nonetheless moving coming of age story about a woman finally entering the world just as her father tragically leaves it. Think: Yorgos Lanthimos x Frances Ha.