There’s a semi-competitive conversation entertained by our two main characters halfway into Stay the Night about whether sitting at the bar is better than sitting at a table during a date or pick-up scenario. The athletic and confident man prefers the bar. He likes the side-by-side closeness and the energy of the surrounding hustle and bustle. The more demure woman favors the face-to-face setup, furniture boundary, and the quieter surroundings that come with a table.
Both make sound arguments where the choice depends on the moment and the people. A table away from distractions can be as intimate as the crowded mahogany filling station. Likewise, the compacted crowd of the watering hole epicenter can squash the appeal of proximity. One way or another, it’s all about closeness versus boundaries, and both can be gained and lost from either position.
In this given moment, the woman wins the preference and soon proves her point. Even across the small wooden plateau, her inescapable eye contact and tough questions make the gentleman uncomfortable enough to bolt. Naturally, she goes after him to make amends and close the divide. So much for the typical boundaries versus closeness. Stay the Night, written and directed by Renuka Jeyapalan (HBO Max’s Sort Of), is well-rooted in blurring and challenging this dichotomy. This SXSW festival entry coyly engages in a romantic tug-of-war of shared spaces and shared feelings. It arrives on theaters and VOD platforms on October 7th.
The two people contorting their comfort zones in the film are Grace and Carter. Grace, played by Andrea Bang of Kim’s Convenience fame, is a standoffish Toronto woman in her mid-20s stuck at a middle ladder rung working in human resources. Her superiors don’t see the take-charge spark that would advance her career to a manager position, and they’re right. Her downright uncomfortable demeanor matches one in her social life where she avoids the dating scene being navigated by her co-workers, friends, and her roommate Joni (Ginny and Georgia’s Humberly Gonzalez). Grace wants more out of her life and career, but cannot accelerate to that next extroverted speed. She has her peccadillos and barriers as to why.
Carter Stone, played by Joe Scarpellino of Demain Des Hommes, is a whole other story. He’s a famous professional hockey player in town with his Florida-based team. Carter’s been informed by the coaching staff that he’s been waived and demoted back to the minors. He is surprised and dejected by this impending crossroads. Relegated back to his hotel suite and waiting for a phone call from his agent, Carter sets out to drink and bed his sorrows away before catching a plane in the morning.
Grace and Carter run into each other in their mutual huffs leaving a night spot after catching each other’s eye. Seeking mutual means of escape, the two share a cab and their Linklater Lite night begins. Set to a muted trumpet score by The Wilders, their first stop is his hotel room only to have their potential between-the-sheets tryst swerve into an extended session of bared souls more than bared flesh.
When the two emerge from the hotel to shuffle around the snowy Queen City, their clashing ideals fill the conversations. Even before the table vs. bar example from above, the two speak in euphemisms over leftover bar kitchen burgers to describe sexual partners. There’s a sliding scale of playfulness and abruptness in the ways Carter, with his probing questions, and Grace, with her quick and dismissive answers, address the growing herd of elephants in each other’s personal rooms.
There’s a low-risk temporary honesty that comes from dumping one’s issues on a stranger with less shame than you would to a known friend. Stepping up as a positive influence over becoming a lothario, Carter is heart set on getting Grace through her peccadillos, starting with making proactive decisions as simple as saying yes to good things that come her way. Sure enough, their growing cordiality shrinks the unfamiliarity and creates new confidantes with a potential future.
Renuka Jeyapalan, who cut her teeth directing 13 episodes of Kim’s Convenience during its five-season run and makes her feature-length directorial debut here, wrote a plum lead part to showcase Andrea Bang. With their familiarity, it would have been very easy to lean on Bang’s comedic chops. Instead, Grace is a complicated character with relatable hurdles that are explored with dignity, attainable strength, and plenty of the 33-year-old Canadian’s natural pluck. To see her hide in a muffler scarf with silent tears in one moment and then morph into an empowered love interest later is a lovely display of her appeal. Get this actress more roles!
Complete with legitimate hockey skills, Joe Scarpellino most certainly looks the part of the smoldering hot jock. Stay the Night uses that to its advantage as a foil to Bang’s unsociable streak. Yet, in portraying an restless character finding his own patience, Scarpellino allows a tenderness to come through with each gesture of unified participation as the tourist of the pair. It would be so easy to immediately melt two flirtatious lead characters together and, for a moment, that almost happens, but Jeyapalan wisely shifts the momentum and the emphasis.
Stay the Night plays out smarter than the usual rom-coms or “one wild night” movies of thrust-together strangers. Like its lead woman, it is reserved and far more realistic with its urban sauntering. In different and disinterested hands, the floozy-plus-dreamboat formula would be in full effect. There would be some zany impossibility or preposterous monkey wrench thrown into the narrative for excitement’s sake. All the conflict you need is right here—between its ears, in its beating heart, and within the held hands—of this gratifying and understated film.