Kambili questions our understanding of the Romcom genre

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By Mr. X

Romantic comedies have been tagged to be light-hearted, slice-of-life works of fiction that employ the double pivot of humor and romance in their plotlines. A tricky genre that spotlights the essence of human connections and character growth. In effect, the best films of the genre explore the diversity in its characters to keep the story fresh, believable and tasty. There are a ton of impressive Hollywood titles to choose from. We have the romcoms famous in the 90’s and 2000’s; the formulaic, aspirational stories that suggest the end from the beginning, yet take you on a joyride and reward your time with smiles, blushes and goosebumps e.g. Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle. There’s the more practical, amoral yet delightful commentary on love in 500 days of summer written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, as a deviation from the much-revered “happily ever after” resolution. Then there’s My best friend’s wedding written by Ronald Bass, acclaimed for its masterful use of wild cards in the overused In-love-with-my-best-friend trope. The selfsame direction Kambili treads but chews on rather softly.

I mean, it’s romantic comedy, no rules are set in stone. Keep it fun, focused but not forced. At best, it’s tasteful and at worst, a drab eyesore that lacks soul. Overthinking or underthinking the plot saps the genre of its flavour. A good romcom is full of heart, smiles, sparks, lingering aftertastes that pull you back to replay certain scenes. No one expects you to overshoot clichés or the obvious tropes. An imaginative plot and worthy, unpretentious characters are tools enough to, at least, craft an enjoyable story. This is where Kambili falls short. It serves neither. What it does serve is a jumble of a sketchy plot, half-hearted characters, colourful yet, in some parts, over-exposed scenes, and relatable, squeezy dialogue. Capped with an ending that suggests we’ve been watching a romance movie without the faintest clue we actually were.

The film follows Kambili (Nancy Isime), an ostentatious, forgetful and lackluster 29-year old obsessed about marriage. Her boyfriend (Mauwuli Gavor) soon breaks up with her, days before her birthday, for reasons suggesting she’s not woman enough to be a wife. To get him back, Kambili decides to do better with her life, start a business and be the wife material fitting for her man. She embarks on this self-help with the exhausting support of her best friends Chidi (Jide-Kene), Biodun (Venita Akpofure) and fiancé, Jesse (Kekere Ekun). Kambili soon realizes, in the very end, that she’s been pushing hard to an unattainable end. Nothing she does will make her suitable for the man she loves. She calls off the half-hearted engagement and discovers her best friend, Chidi, all the while, has been in love with her. Interesting, yea?

What the film tackles, or attempts to tackle, is the social commentary of self-awareness, independence and emancipation from verbally-abusive relationships. In this case, for a woman named Kambili. Suggested? Maybe. Effective? Not quite.

This is where Romcoms get tricky for story and character. It has to have the right balance. Serious enough to explore the characters’ ills and light enough to sustain the comedy and romance. The film serves us saltless bits of both. There’s a gripping disconnection between us and Kambili as she had with the other characters, questioning the choice to make Isime a leading woman. She does have her moments but barely enough to sustain interest beyond her coy mannerisms. Case in point, her so-called best friend, Chidi, with whom, I presume, their shared screen-time is intended to leap off as intimate buddy moments. Well, far from it. More consistently than the intention, the on-screen chemistry, or what looked like it, comes off as a coerced rehearsal between two strangers.

Need I mention Kambili’s languid interest in art that culminated to the cheesy “Music is a universal language. Art is like music and music is like art?” No, let’s move on.

The story of her other friends, Biodun and Jesse, both engaged to be married but not without their own troubles is a sidebar that could do with more fleshing out. Its subpar execution sidelights its needless inclusion. Whatever it was intended for, whether balance, contrast or a loose-fitting afterthought, remains a mystery. It appears Nollywood feels much at home parading actors for the posters than giving them real purposes story-wise. In a myriad of fatigued performances, Kambili’s mother (Elvina Ibru) still shines. Nonetheless, one could read the graphic burden on her face. And no, not the burden of a decent, weighty material.

Kambili left me with half smiles and questions: Are our romcoms influenced by unintelligent dubs from existing films? Are writers ill-equipped for the subject or is the industry generally misinformed about the romcom genre? Do we have a sweeping misimpression of love as a people?… These questions, cogent and seeking, albeit do not discredit the few titles that fairly fulfil the demands of the genre (Noteworthy are Jade Osiberu’s Isoken and Ishaya Bako’s The Royal Hibiscus Hotel) but there’s a strong possibility I’d return with more questions with the next Nollywood romcom I see.

There’s not much to muster from Kambili. The film did not stay true to itself but manages to tease us with a contrived happy ending. Mushy and feel-good are descriptions fitting for Kambili. It shimmers with the glam, kisses, colors and hints of a love story, nothing more. The kind you watch with your significant other to quell a lovers’ tiff.


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