CultureFilm / TV

zendaya & john david washington deliver an outstanding performance in netflix’s new romantic drama, malcolm & marie

February 5, 2021
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Growing up, my perception of ideal love was finding the perfect partner to have kids with, enjoy suburban life, and hopefully live happily ever after. In my inexperienced and naïve version of love, there were no insecurities to deal with, no burdens from the past, or reasons to get into bitter arguments, it’s all bliss. Of course, the TV shows I was exposed to and the number of countless times I spent reading superficial romantic novels largely influenced this. As I grew older, my perception changed as I experienced complex relationships with people who had their ideas of what love is.

Netflix reunites Euphoria’s Director, Sam Levinson with Zendaya alongside John David Washington for Malcolm & Marie, a brutally honest domestic drama exploring the intricacies of navigating a relationship riddled with past traumas that have been unchecked. The movie strips away the fairytale idea of what I thought a relationship was, and we’re provided with a front-row seat to witness raw passion between two people who’re in love but can’t help hurting each other.

The movie was shot in a single location over two weeks with a small crew filming during the early lockdown stages, following Euphoria’s halted production due to COVID-19. While waiting for production to resume on Euphoria, Sam pitched the idea to Zendaya and John David Washington, who both are also co-producers of the movie.

We open with filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) returning home after a successful premiere of his new movie, which promises to be a critical success. Oblivious to his visibly disgruntled partner, Malcolm is in a celebratory mood even though he complains about journalists viewing his movie (or any other movie from a Black director) with a forced pretentious political gaze to appear as “woke”, instead of appreciating the simplicity that, his film is about a drug addict girl who is trying to get her shit together. I appreciated Levinsons’ genius when he used Malcolm’s rant as a commentary about how Hollywood often pigeonholes Black creatives to a specific genre for them to be successful. Think Spike Lee with “Do The Right Thing”, John Singleton with “Boyz In The Hood” or Jordan Peele with “Get Out”. Why can’t Hollywood appreciate Black creatives without attaching trauma to their work?

Cinematographer Marcell Rév’s work on Malcolm & Marie is brilliant. He skillfully uses the house to frame the characters in their respective state of emotions. For example, we see Marie framed through a kitchen window where she feels isolated in her state of anger towards Malcolm, while they give him space to roam freely in-between spaces without acknowledging his partner’s feelings.

When Malcolm finally notices Marie’s hostility, he pushes her to open up about why she’s angry, and when she finally does, the movie catapults into an all-out war of words where both lovers take their gloves off. With Malcolm & Marie, Levinson perfectly captures how two people in love can easily push each other’s buttons to reveal their worst traits. For example, Marie invalidates Malcolm’s authenticity as a filmmaker by calling him a narcissist who can’t create exceptional work without taking from other people’s stories, and he retaliates by weaponizing her traumatic past with drug abuse to hurt her. They both resent each other, but this is coming from a place of feeling inferior, being unheard, and invalidated in the relationship. We see this feeling of inferiority when Marie asks Malcolm why he didn’t cast her as a lead in his film, even though he loosely based the main character on her past.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is an all-out screaming match, there are moments where you see how much they love each other. Even though he may deny it, Malcolm needs Marie’s validation, and she also loves the feeling of being needed. It’s a classic case of co-dependency. Zendaya and John’s chemistry is beautiful to watch and makes for an incredible on-screen dynamic. 

One would think spending 106 minutes with two people arguing in a single location would be claustrophobic, but this is not the case. The director allows the characters space to breathe, Zendaya and John’s pacing is perfectly timed and does not leave you feeling dragged as they deliver heartfelt monologues throughout the film. Another aspect to appreciate about this movie is the use of costumes as a sign of how each character is letting their guard down. At the beginning of the argument, while wearing their full outfits from the premier, they tiptoe around each other afraid of being vulnerable but, by the end of the movie, their emotions are laid bare for us to see as they shed off their clothes.

Both actors beautifully take charge of this movie and seeing Zendaya break away from the “teenage child” role is exciting, while we get to see John David Washington finally getting the freedom to flex his acting skills.

Ultimately, I find Malcolm & Marie an incredible beautiful mess that I will repeatedly watch.