The director of “When Harry Met Sally….” has given us a middle-school variation, an on and off love story that begins in second grade when Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) and his family move in across the street from Juli Baker (an exquisite performance by Madeline Carroll). In Rob Reiner‘s film, based on a popular book for middle schoolers, Juli immediately falls for Bryce, which of course immediately makes him feel creeped out. Five years later, in middle school, he is still doing everything he can to avoid her. And she is still doing everything she can to be near him. And then, things change. She does not like him any more. And he realizes that she is a very special girl, and that he will do anything to re-earn her affection.
It isn’t just the emotions of the characters that are flipping here; it is also the point of view. We get to see the same situations from both sides, and we get to hear how the two characters’ perspectives do and do not overlap.
Reiner sets the story in the early 1960’s, and the movie has a flawless attention to period detail — the long hair parted in the middle, “Bonanza” on the television. But the essence of the story is eternal, with its impeccable evocation of that moment when we first begin to look at our families’ limits and imperfections and first begin to create the people we will grow up to be.
And not just our families. Juli does not question her love for Bryce for years. And then she becomes older and wiser and realizes that beautiful eyes do not always mean a beautiful spirit and that she really does not know him very well. Bryce may have lovely eyes, but it is not until he sees her through someone else’s eyes that he begins to appreciate her. Bryce’s grandfather (John Mahoney of “Frasier”) realizes Juli’s value first. “Some of us get dipped in flat, some in satin, some in gloss,” he tells Bryce. “But every once in a while you find someone who’s iridescent, and when you do, nothing will ever compare.”
Co-screenwriter/director Reiner lets us share the growing understanding of Juli and Bryce as they begin to see themselves, each other, and their families differently. And with great sensitivity and insight, he evokes the agonizing sweetness of first love and the way that it stays alive in us forever, making possible all of the loves that are to come.