How Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe Balances Ambition with Romance

Pop Culture

How Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe Balances Ambition with Romance

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Within the canon of rom-coms, the grand declaration – a speech that arises out of a moment of epiphany, sincerity, and apology – has always been the epitome of romantic gestures.

It has traditionally also been a device for wish fulfillment: a confused man finally realising the extent of his feelings and rushing to express them to the woman of his dreams before it’s too late. These proposals play out at the most public places –  the airport, train station, at a party, or on the road – deriving much of their appeal from the deepest desire a hopeless romantic holds dear in their hearts: validation. In that moment, someone you fancy isn’t merely expressing their feelings for you, they’re also performing it in front of the world, invariably putting your existence on a pedestal. It’s why more often that not, the grand declaration is effective emotional embellishment, yet rarely much more. But in Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe – now streaming on Netflix – the grand declaration is its strongest statement.

As per convention, the moment plays out at a glitzy public red carpet, thronged by celebrities dressed in their latest designer-friendly OOTDs. Sasha Tran (a fantastic Ali Wong), an attractive, independent, intelligent, and successful celebrity chef, flashes a smile before stepping in front of the prying cameras. In a few seconds, she is interrupted mid-answer by Marcus Kim (Randall Park), her childhood best friend and potential soulmate who delivers a saccharine monologue about love and companionship to win her back. The outcome of the lovingly-rendered speech, is predictable: Marcus and Sasha kiss and make up.

On paper, it is a sequence that ticks all the checkboxes of what makes larger-than-life onscreen proposals so inimitable. Yet, what makes it more than just another culmination of a happily-ever-after, is the fact that it plays out in Sasha’s professional world. Seconds after they make up, Marcus walks hand-in-hand and accompanies Sasha to her work event. Effectively, Always Be My Maybe allows Sasha a rare work-love balance, a detail that acquires additional significance in the universe of a rom-com, where romance and ambition rarely coalesce for a female lead. The romance in When Harry Met Sally, for instance, didn’t depend on Sally’s career. Back in the day, it also didn’t need to; rom-coms weren’t expected to stick to reality.

Always Be My Maybe takes care to not pit one lover’s success against the other’s failure.

Over the years, this complete erasure of a woman’s professional identity that has contributed to the growing aversion to the rom-com genre in the modern day and age, where love isn’t always the only solution. Irrespective of their enduring appeal, it’s impossible to sit through a rom-com in 2019 that sees its actress’ search for love as her only ambition. And in the last few years, Netflix’s aggressive efforts to resuscitate the rom-com has been steered toward addressing that very inadequacy, giving the genre a more progressive spin. It’s a move that has achieved varying degrees of success: On the one hand, if Set It Up brilliantly etched out a rom-com in the backdrop of a demanding millennial workplace, then on the other, I Feel Pretty used its female lead’s “career” to serve her love life.

In that sense, Always Be My Maybe co-written by Wong, Park, and Michael Golamco – seems like a game-changer, for it refuses to view its Sasha’s romantic future in a vacuum. Instead, the happily-ever-after arrives only when it is in tandem with her professional ambition. Like Set It Up and I Feel Pretty, the film features an ambitious and gifted woman, who is good at what she does. But, it doesn’t just stop at gifting her a career or making her ambition a sub-plot. It is the rare film that comes the closest to responding to the times by making Sasha’s professional identity the sexiest thing about her.

Originating out of Wong and Park’s desire to make an Asian version of When Harry Met Sally, Always Be My Maybe follows Sasha and Marcus, two childhood best friends who lose their virginity to each other. But then drift apart for the next 16 years. Marcus, secretly still grieving the untimely death of his mother, leads a stitled adult life devoid of aggressive ambition despite being a talented musician. Sasha is on the opposite end of the spectrum: She is a celebrity chef, creating modern Vietnamise cuisine and overseeing the launch of multiple restaurants in different cities.

Yet, when they reconnect again, they’re on equal footing: Always Be My Maybe takes care to not pit one lover’s success against the other’s failure. Instead, it ekes out Marcus and Sasha’s respective strengths and weaknesses in front of them. The film focuses not on their differing ideas of ambition, but on their shared talent. So even when the conflict between Marcus and Sasha is rooted in his aversion to the showiness of her career, it’s never directed at her ambition. Neither does the film punish her for prioritising her career over her love life, nor does Marus force her to give it up. Always be My Maybe might not be perfect, but it does put its weight behind a flawless romantic theory: Love after all, is a delicate dance of compromise, just not of a woman’s career.