‘Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List’: Outfest Review

Straight girl and gay boy fall for the same person in a romantic comedy based on a young-adult novel.

Victoria Justice and Pierson Fodé play 18-year-old BFFs whose lifelong bond is tested by their separate — and overlapping — romantic pursuits in Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. By turns breezy, over-amped, purposely cartoony and bittersweet, the coming-of-age rom-com is based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel of the same name. Like their previous YA book to be adapted for the screen, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, it’s partly a valentine to New York.

But while the earlier film resonated beyond the expected Millennial viewership, that’s not a likely scenario for the new feature, which is receiving its world premiere at Outfest Los Angeles. Though Naomi delivers its insights on romance and friendship with a light touch, the busy story, akin to Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Adderall, isn’t going to strike a chord with a broad audience.

The Bottom Line

A sparky YA romp with slightly more dramatic heft than a listicle

Justice and Fodé lead the attractive, self-possessed cast as next-door neighbors in Lower Manhattan who are beginning their freshman year at nearby NYU. While Ely’s making the most of the chance to meet and date new boys, Naomi’s lost without his constant companionship. When she says, in the inevitable stage-setting voiceover narration, that she’s “OK with gay — just not for him,” she’s expressing denial, not homophobia. As that voiceover goes on to explain, in echoes of the Psych 101 lectures she attends, Naomi is given to lying to herself. She’s in love with Ely, hoping against hope that childhood notions of their own romantic destiny will play out.

She’s also given to announcing defiantly that “we’re 21st-century New Yorkers.” As adapted by screenwriters Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer (Step Up 3D), the story gives us a central duo whose main purpose is to be self-consciously witty and fabulous, if not always likable or believable. Helmer Kristin Hanggi, who developed and directed the Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages, is enamored of these two as they vamp around Greenwich Village or wax ironic in their rooms (Dara Wishingrad’s production design emphasizes color and exuberance over lived-in detail).

But for all the endless posturing and condescension (Naomi’s librarian pal Robin, played by Monique Coleman, is her “backup friend”), Ely and Naomi’s deep mutual affection registers in the lead performances. The screenplay handles crucial backstory about their messily entangled home lives in economical fashion, and Hanggi provides incisive glimpses of the parents: Ely’s unhappily married mothers, Naomi’s divorced and depressed mom.

The movie grows less scattershot when a complicating factor materializes in the form of a mild-mannered Canadian. Bruce (Ryan Ward), the sweet film student who Naomi is half-heartedly dating, discovers that he’s more attracted to Ely. The guys’ initial bonding over X-Men, along with a later conversation about coming out, strikes a YA-friendly balance between storytelling and moral lesson. One of the material’s strengths is its reflection of Millennial fluidity and acceptance of sexual orientation as an aspect of personality rather than its defining quality.

The film also taps into the particular New York experience of kids growing up together in apartment buildings, and makes use of Naomi and Ely’s lobby as the setting for a comic, all-ages Greek chorus. In a tossed-aside joke, an older neighbor hanging out on the entryway couch responds to Naomi’s platinum-wigged Nancy Spungen Halloween costume — one of many strong contributions from costumer David Tabbert — by calling her Jean Harlow.

In this semi-real lobby setting, the key figure, and the least comic, is young doorman Gabriel (Matthew Daddario, injecting charismatic warmth). When he appears on the scene he earns a place of distinction on the “no kiss list” that Naomi and Ely cheekily compile: dreamy, usually out-of-reach boys who they vow not to smooch. The goal is to avoid the kind of conflict that arises nonetheless. The lists and rules will prove futile, and Gabriel will eventually pull Naomi out of her Ely-centric dependency and her downtown cocoon.

From the Village to Central Park, director of photography Anka Malatynska casts the Manhattan settings in an everyday sheen that suits the youthful perspective, while a score of pop songs validates the emotional highs and lows of late adolescence. Both Naomi and Ely will kiss dreamboats, but it’s how they sort out their friendship — and, not least, the ownership of a glitter belt — that makes their story more than paper-thin.

Production company: Oscar Crosby Films
Cast: Victoria Justice, Pierson Fodé, Matthew Daddario, Ryan Ward, Griffin Newman, Monique Coleman, Danny Flaherty, Gary Betsworth, Dean Kapica
Director: Kristin Hanggi 
Screenwriters: Amy Andelson, Emily Meyer
Based on the book by Rachel Cohn, David Levithan 
Producers: Alexandra Milchan, Lesley Vogel, Emily Gerson Saines, Kristin Hanggi, Robert Abramoff
Executive producers: Skip Klintworth, Mike Harrop, Cassian Elwes
Director of photography: Anka Malatynska
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editors: Michelle Harrison, Elísabet Ronalds
Composer: Deborah Lurie  
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

No rating, 90 minutes