Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 9, 2011)
Back in the mid-1990s, I met my first serious girlfriend through a local paper’s “personals”. When we needed to tell people how we’d met, she didn’t want to admit the truth; “personal ads” came with a smell of desperation back then, so she preferred to give some other manner of introduction.
Nowadays that situation has changed radically, all thanks to Internet dating. Virtually everyone has either met a significant other that way or knows someone who did so. I have two friends who married their Internet matches, another who’s been with her guy for eight years – and I met my girlfriend of 15 months that way.
An HBO documentary called When Strangers Click takes a closer look at the phenomenon via “five stories from the Internet”. These include:
“Kim”, a Jersey girl who goes through a long – and long-distance - romance with a guy from Prague;
“Ryan” from Montana, a guy from a seriously conservative background who eventually realizes he’s gay and ends up in an online “relationship” with the mayor of Spokane, Washington;
“Dave”, a New York grad student who entered chat rooms in the Internet’s early years and met an array of women that way before he found his wife;
“Beth and Andy”, a New York couple who got together although he’s significantly older;
“Jonas”, a Swedish businessman who enters the virtual world of “Second Life” and meets the future mother of his child there.
Each of those stories has a twist of a sort, and that’s the program’s main flaw. Given the ubiquity of online dating, I’d expect more of an emphasis on experiences with which the average person can relate. These don’t need to be dull, but they could give a better sense of how the format works in the real world.
Instead, Click focuses on unusual stories. To a degree, that’s fine, as a lot of online dating tales wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Take my situation with my girlfriend: we met on Chemistry, had a nice first date at a tea place, and became more serious over a few months. I’m happy with the relationship but have to admit that our tale wouldn’t make for cinematic gold.
And I know from experience that there are many kookier stories of romance. One of my friends has been with his partner for more than a decade, and they came together when the partner ran an ad online looking for guys to shoot whack-off videos. For reasons I still don’t understand, my friend said “awesome” and that’s how they met. It’s not exactly a story you tell to mother – and I hope she’s not reading, because my friend’s never told his parents the tale – but it’s what happened, so I’m well-aware that people do get into long-term relationships via unusual – and sometimes downright icky – circumstances.
Nonetheless, it’d be nice if Click went with more balance and gave us some interesting but not out of the ordinary tales. Except perhaps for Beth and Andy – which gets the least screentime of the five segments - I feel like the stories told in the documentary fall into the “one in a million” category. At the very least, they all need some kicker, like the revelation that Dave is incredibly short. (Diminutive stature is online dating Kryptonite for women.)
How about some well-told stories of couples that don’t come with weird twists or surprise endings? I have friends whose tales fall into the “unusual and interesting but not extreme” category, but Click under-represents those.
It also runs through the characters so quickly that we don’t get a very good grasp on them or their relationships. In particular, this is a problem with Kim’s story. It’s never clear why an attractive women who lives in a heavily populated area of the US would become so desperate that she interacts with a guy who lives thousands of miles away – and then marries him after three months of chatting and virtually no time in person!
We’re also left to wonder what it was about Dennis that attracted her, given that they communicate only through text and the guy couldn’t write a coherent English sentence to save his life. The whole tale seems sad and creepy; it only earns redemption when we see their Happily Ever After.
Maybe these stories would work better if they had more time to unfold. We essentially get “Cliffs Notes” versions of the tales, as the movie rushes through them with abandon. Again, some receive better exploration than others, but we never get a great feel for the characters or what makes them tick. Everything’s too quick and superficial.
All of this adds up to make When Strangers Click a disappointment. The world of online dating offers fertile ground for documentary exploration, but this program drops the ball.