A wise Canadian chanteuse by the name of Carly Rae Jepsen once said, “It’s not Christmas until somebody cries.” And, by god, did she have a point there.
Whether or not you’re big on the holidays, there’s no denying that they’re the most emotionally raw time of the year—it’s why there’s a whole subgenre of love songs dedicated to the ~38 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. While the season can be about families coming together to celebrate, honoring old traditions and starting others anew; there are people who are more solemn, reflecting on holidays without their loved ones. Watching it from an outsider’s perspective is enough to make even the most frosty of us shed a tear or five…thousand.
Spoiler Alert—the new film from The Eyes of Tammy Faye director Michael Showalter, adapted from entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello’s bestselling memoir about his husband Kit’s cancer diagnosis—employs this tactic to dastardly success. It’s not just happy or sad, but an ultra-authentic hodgepodge of the two, with a dash of just about every other emotion capable of being reached in the human spectrum of feeling.
Somehow, Showalter, along with writers Dan Savage and David Marshall Grant, have created a rom-com, drama, and holiday movie all rolled into one. And in the capable hands of its director, writers, and a terrific cast, Spoiler Alert doesn’t feel like a hollow Hallmark marketing scheme, preying on our hearts at a time when they’re most vulnerable. Rather, it’s a true-to-life celebration of the subtleties that make the holiday season, and life in its entirety, so incredibly difficult and beautiful at the same time.
If you’re unfamiliar with the full title of Ausiello’s memoir, you should know before heading into the theater that you’re about to see a film adapted from a book called, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies. So, if you’re a Christmas Crier and want to get your one good sob out of the way early in the season, fire up the Fandango app as soon as possible. In the film, Ausiello is played by Jim Parsons, the perfect proxy for the awkward but lovable gay guy who spends too much time invested in his work and not enough enjoying life.
On a rare night out at the behest of his TV Guide (remember that?) coworker, Michael meets Kit (Ben Aldridge) on the dance floor of a gay bar. Despite Michael thinking Kit is way out of his league, the two quickly strike up a rapport, one that’s cut short by Kit’s friend, on the verge of throwing up in the club. As if in his very own television show meet-cute, Michael has the bright idea to hand Kit his card before he dashes off into the night.
Unexpectedly, Kit actually calls. And after a successful string of dates, the two of them fall into a relationship. Like any good romance, the first few months are tinged with as much excitement as they are nerves. Both Michael and Kit slowly dole out their eccentricities, and stay through each new surprise. Their budding romance is soft and heartfelt, while also achingly funny. This is the type of love we see all too rarely, one that ebbs, flows, and grows with a genuine sense of truth and humor at its heart. When Kit, who isn’t yet out to his parents, accidentally backs himself and Michael into a corner with an appendectomy that brings his mother (Sally Field) and father (Bill Irwin) into town, the flustered coming-out only adds to the dreamy charm of their connection.
Such is the case with any relationship, the good comes with the bad. We know from the opening frames of Spoiler Alert that the love we’re seeing develop so naturally onscreen will eventually end in tragedy. But instead of twisting that rusty knife over and over as a cheap ploy for tears, we’re allowed to move forward through Kit and Michael’s relationship and take stock of it without the mawkish sheen of a Lifetime movie. We see why every Christmas, even the bad ones, are so special; we watch fights and couples therapy without choosing sides; we witness two people grow and change with honesty. By the time Kit is diagnosed with a rare, advanced form of neuroendocrine cancer in their thirteenth year together, it stings as acutely as it would—and does—hearing it about a loved one of our own.
As he did with 2017’s The Big Sick, Showalter handles the sensitivity of this true story with grace. He ably balances the weight of Kit’s prognosis with the humor and passion that seep out of life’s smallest moments when staring in the face of a monolithic question mark. And he’s aided by Parsons and Aldridge, who give two of the most tender and thoughtful performances seen in a romantic dramedy in years. There is not one false moment in their chemistry, and both of them innately understand the importance of telling this story right. Not just for the veracity of the text, but for its potential impact on its audience.
Crafting films and television that can make an audience treasure their own lives is no easy feat. This time of the year, handfuls of awards-baiting movies trickle into theaters every week, most of them following the formulaic algorithm set into place by past nominees. (With a few new, shiny bells and whistles tacked on, of course.) But for all of their high-budget gloss or scrappy indie charm, few of them actually penetrate. Once the lights go up, how long will you remember what you just saw?
Spoiler Alert will stay with you for weeks, it certainly has for me. In the dark of that theater, the audience silently gave itself permission to cry—and to cry hard. And not just in the heavier moments, but in the softer ones, too—the ones that capture the intricacies of love’s response to heartache. There is something incredibly specific and special about a room full of strangers, letting their guard down and hearing each other cry. It’s a reminder of the importance of human connection, and the possibilities that make our existence so remarkable. That kind of spirit has been trounced by the pandemic, and seeing a film like this with an audience that is kind enough to let the jaded fortifications built up over the last two years fall by the wayside is a very touching thing.
It’s impossible not to come away from this film with particularly fond regard for those closest to us. And some might find its plain intention to make audiences hold their loved ones a little closer this holiday season to be trite and saccharine. But the film is made with such astonishing veracity that it seems immune to those perceptions. It only wants us to open our eyes to see things how they are, right at this moment, to capture them for ourselves later.
Spoiler Alert is deeply generous in that respect, and somehow still as funny as it is earnest. It might know just how sad it is, but instead of being just a sob story, it remains grounded by the noble intent to make us admire all of the details, good and bad, that make love extraordinary.