In Better Than the Movies, author Lynn Painter offers up this rom-com about rom-coms, as a hopeless romantic teenager named Liz, attempts to secure a happily-ever-after moment with her forever crush, but instead finds herself reluctantly drawn to the boy next door instead.
Here’s the summary…
Perpetual daydreamer Liz Buxbaum gave her heart to Michael a long time ago. But her cool, aloof forever crush never really saw her before he moved away. Now that he’s back in town, Liz will do whatever it takes to get on his radar—and maybe snag him as a prom date—even befriend Wes Bennet.
The annoyingly attractive next-door neighbor might seem like a prime candidate for romantic comedy fantasies, but Wes has only been a pain in Liz’s butt since they were kids. Pranks involving frogs and decapitated lawn gnomes do not a potential boyfriend make. Yet, somehow, Wes and Michael are hitting it off, which means Wes is Liz’s in.
But as Liz and Wes scheme to get Liz noticed by Michael so she can have her magical prom moment, she’s shocked to discover that she likes being around Wes. And as they continue to grow closer, she must reexamine everything she thought she knew about love—and rethink her own ideas of what Happily Ever After should look like.
Did you ever see the movie They Came Together starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd? It’s a satirical romantic comedy (rom-com) which is essentially a parody of other more sincere romantic comedies, poking fun at the over-stylized predictable nature of the genre. Well, this book is exactly that, it’s a meta-story about rom-coms with just about every cliché and trope you can throw up against the wall, albeit with a genuinely reverential approach. Does it all stick? Nope. Does that matter? Nope.
And that’s entirely the point of Better Than the Movies by Lynn Painter. You’re supposed to recognize the pre-conceived and derivative notion of this story. And rather than cynically roll your eyes at it (like Liz does to Wes on occasion), I suggest you set aside the cynicism and enjoy the ride instead.
In a book that references by name and quotes a pile of popular rom-com films, you’d better believe the story will reflect much of the same sentiment. But at the end of the day, checking boxes will only get you so far, in that sense, Better than the Movies does fail at its original premise. It never once surpasses any of the films mentioned in any serious way. Everything is dialed down just enough to make this a soft landing instead of a grand cinematic experience. But it works better as homage anyways so the book shouldn’t lose any marks for not breaking ground.
Something Lynn does take seriously, appropriately so, is her look at grief and loss, specifically as it relates to Liz and her dealing with the death of her mother at a young age. It’s obvious early on Liz’s quirkiness is a product of the trauma she experienced losing her mother; as she stands apart from even her closest friend, it’s even stated outright at one point. Yes, Liz is the way she is because she’s clinging to a memory, and rather than move on, she’s content on coping, but that’s starting to wear thin. Aside from an identical taste in films, she dresses like her mother, acts like her mother, and uses her mother’s absence to avoid moving on with her own life as she approaches the borderline of youth.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being yourself, standing apart in a crowd, being an original, those are all great and wonderful things that I highly encourage. And Liz, on paper, is the type of person I would most definitely gravitate towards, while turning my nose up at the highly fashionable, pretentious jock crowd. But the truth is, as it currently stands, some of these idiosyncrasies that make Liz unique, are stemming from an unhealthy obsession with her mother’s desires, or Liz’s best guess at them anyways. That’s really kind of an issue, Liz is holding on to a memory of her mother that doesn’t always reflect the truth, it’s damn close, but blurry.
This is a lighthearted affair so don’t look for too thorough an examination of trauma, and Liz’s hang-ups are mostly a series of harmless admonitions, but the approach is earnest. Her inability to be honest with herself about the situation does spiral a bit and has kept her from forming intimate relationships. You see, she lives her life one Bridget Jones Diary scene at a time, in other words, a fantastical notion of what constitutes real-life romance. This rose-colored glass approach has its limits however and the third act of this book narrows in on just that premise; but whether Liz comes out on the other side well-adjusted or not is the focus of the book’s climax.
Since the boys are mostly superficial, look to the girls for substance and that includes likely my favorite character besides Liz, her stepmother Helena. Their relationship is mostly a trail of broken eggshells as Helena walks that fine line between connection and overstepping. A tricky proposition that isn’t made any easier by Liz’s fumbling towards adulthood, but Helena is perceptive and respectful, and most of all, cares for Liz. There’s love there, on both sides, but it’s clear Liz prefers to keep Helena at arm’s length for the time being, and her dad loves her so.
This is a fake dating to lover’s scheme set in High School so expect more than few moments of teenage bliss, awkwardness, and catastrophic social events. There aren’t any really antagonists although Lynn attempts to create a rivalry between Liz and one of the other more popular students. And the boys? Those boys are a series of good-looking, smart, and well put-together future congressman who are idealized to the point of shame, speaking for myself of course. But this fits perfectly with the aesthetic that Lynn is painting, this serialized faux rom-com where any and all problems exist just beneath the shiny surface.
As the would-be, Wes is the boy next door who never grew up, or so Liz thinks. In reality he’s a good-looking, popular jock who stands out by being a nice guy. But his and Liz’s relationship, which goes back years, is a series of pranks, parking spot wars, and general annoyance. There is an emotional connection there, between himself and Liz, but that has been relegated to the past…for now.
A strange omission has to do with Wes and his “free ride” to UCLA. You see, Wes is a good enough baseball pitcher to receive multiple scholarship offers to some major schools, but we don’t once see him even pick up a baseball, let alone throw one. Something that important would require much more of his time and focus I’d imagine, and it would have made a ton of sense to insert that into the narrative but it’s completely absent until the third act.
The bottom line is, unless this is your first book ever, you’ll see everything coming a mile away so like most YA romance books, Better Than the Movies is more about the journey than the destination. So, do yourself a favor and base your favourability rating on that part and not the end.
Because a book that throws around Kate & Leopold and You’ve Got Mail references like they’re gospel shouldn’t be judged too harshly in my opinion. As for me, I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face even if I tried, so do yourself a favor, read this book, it’s quick, and you’ll be glad you did.
Better Than The Movies is on sale tomorrow, order a copy HERE!