While everything harmonizes in this movie, with an honest script, sharp direction, and dynamic characters, the casting is what makes it really sing. Darren Le Gallo’s feature directorial debut follows the intermingling of two dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Bill (Dustin Hoffman) is an easily irritated but mostly caring older man who is frustrated with his current circumstances. His heart troubles and overall habits (smoking, eating, drinking) are putting his already poor health at an even greater risk, and his adult son Sam (brilliantly played by his real-life son Jake Hoffman) has moved back in with him to keep a closer watch on his old man.
Sam isn’t exactly thrilled to be back home in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the country. When he’s not taking his dad to the doctor, he’s working his shift at the chocolate factory and working on his impressive sketches that never see the light of day. This father-son dynamic is quite endearing (Sam calls his father “Bill” per his dad’s request) and their bond is further cemented by the shared trauma of losing a wife and mother to cancer. Despite their frequent bumping of heads when Sam tries to sneak any form of nutrition into Bill’s diet (don’t tell him it’s tofu bacon) and Bill’s constant comments about Sam’s future, it’s clear the pair cares deeply for each other.
We meet the other half of the film’s title when Sam walks past a local antique bookstore. In the window is Kate (Schuyler Fisk), the girl-next-door-type owner who likes to focus her attention on anything but herself. Though Sam initially lets his self-doubt get the better of him and walks past the entrance, he backpedals and enters the store. Their meet-cute—which Sam did his best to organically orchestrate—drips with chemistry while also remaining incredibly realistic. What’s refreshing and charming is how upfront both are right away. “I was wondering if I could call you, we could hang out?” Sam says with a hesitant smile after speaking to Kate for under five minutes. “I’m not really dating right now,” Kate says after a beat, to which Sam replies, “That’s perfect, because I’m not dating anyone right now.” Though this elicits a smile from Kate, it’s ultimately no dice for Sam. Kate isn’t playing “hard to get” to create a sense of intrigue or mystery, but is rather working through some of her own trauma that is delicately revealed later in the film. Given these two characters are the title of the movie, it’s safe to assume that they would be crossing paths again.
Sam & Kate doesn’t lean too much into stereotypical rom-com moments, but the times it does, it works. And let’s be clear: this is not a romantic comedy. It’s less of a “love” story and more of a “life” story that happens to feature budding romances that come about when you both least expect it and most need it. Chance encounters are a common occurrence in this film, which is convenient from a storytelling perspective, but thanks to Le Gallo’s beautifully curated world and genuine care for his characters, these run-ins flow very well. After Christmas Eve mass, Bill prepares to confront the driver who took his usual parking spot, only to learn that it’s Tina (Sissy Spacek), a woman who used to sing in the choir. It just so happens that Tina is accompanied by her daughter, Kate, which leads to a delightfully awkward reunion between the titular pair and kicks the narrative into gear. Spacek is also Schuyler’s mother in real life, and, similar to the Hoffmans, their effortless rapport is simply a joy to watch.
Sparks fly for Tina and Bill, though both are reluctant to light the fire. They are angry and scared at their loss of control in life and get irrationally possessive and frustrated over benign things. Bill, for example, doesn’t understand why it was decided that red lights mean “stop” and green means “go,” much to Sam’s exhaustion. Tina and Bill often take their grievances out on their children who are simply trying to help. Tina is a hoarder (or as she prefers to be called, a “collector”), and Bill feels suffocated by his health changes. Though it’s hard, both are able to let go of their pent-up stresses when they are together, making for beautiful moments of connection. It’s on a candlelit date where we learn a bit more about Bill and Tina’s past and hear them speak sweetly about their children. Spacek and Hoffman speak with hesitation, almost guilty for enjoying the moment. It even takes Tina to say, “Let’s just not worry about anything for a minute,” for the pair to really enjoy the moment.
While the Hollywood legends don’t disappoint, it’s their children who steal the spotlight. Being able to hold your own in—let alone carry—a movie alongside those heavyweights is no easy feat, but it’s especially impressive considering Schuyler and Jake are not household names. Their one-on-one interactions, almost always initiated by Sam, are unabashedly vulnerable and deep without at all feeling contrived. It doesn’t feel like you are watching a movie but rather eavesdropping on their coffee date. Or as Sam so smoothly puts it to a skeptical Kate, “Not a date, just a friendly chat with caffeine.” Le Gallo’s dialogue for Sam and Kate is genuine, playful, and consistently captivating, and Jake and Schuyler do it justice. The authenticity spills from their mouths, complete with all the necessary pauses and mannerisms to demonstrate that they are getting increasingly comfortable with the other.
These intimate interactions serve as a respite from life’s at-times mundane reality. Sam is fed up with his job at the chocolate factory picking out the “imperfect” candies with his eccentric buddy Ron (hilariously played by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘s Henry Thomas, who also wrote and performed certain songs on the soundtrack). Kate, though she owns the quaint yet successful bookstore, still feels something is missing. It isn’t until they take charge of their unique narratives that their lives start to mold into the ones they deserved all along.
Sam & Kate reminds us that life is unpredictable in the best and worst of ways, and that you shouldn’t wait to pursue who or what you are passionate about.
Sam & Kate is now playing in theaters.