Paper Heart is a high wire act. One wrong step, and the film would become twee and unbearable. One wrong choice and the faux-documentary elements would come across as insufferable. There is a moment or two where it looks like Paper Heart is about to plunge off the wire, but it never really loses its footing and makes it all the way across to the other side and does a nice little bow.
The basic premise has Los Angeles comic Charlyne Yi trying to find out what love is. She says that she’s never experienced it, and doesn’t believe that she’s ever capable of experiencing it. She teams up with director Nicholas Jasenovec (played by Jake M. Johnson, but the real Jasenovec actually directed the movie) and they travel across the country, meeting people and asking them about love and their experiences with it. Some of the stories are reenacted by crude puppets handmade and operated by Yi, and these interludes are the parts where the movie comes closest to twee, but they end up being pretty moving, actually. I found myself getting choked up during one puppet sequence.
The interviews with people are real, but everything else – the behind the scenes aspects of Yi’s journey – is a fake doc. Walking out of the press screening I heard some professional critics saying that they didn’t realize all of that stuff was fake; I don’t think it’s that convincing (and I don’t think they’re trying to ‘fool’ you – there are reaction shots of the documentary cameraman, which must make you realize this is staged) but I do think it’s funny and real and some of the best stuff in the movie. What’s interesting is that Yi is performing here, but she comes across so effortless and natural. Her persona is giggly and shy, which might make engaging with her difficult for some, but for me it makes her endlessly adorable.
The centerpiece of the faux-doc stuff is Yi meeting Michael Cera, and beginning to date him. Fake Jasenovec thinks this is perfect for the doc, and the camera crew follows them everywhere (which makes for some very nice comedy moments), but a budding relationship may not be able to take the strain of constant surveillance.
This is the part of the movie that might have caused the most confusion for some viewers, since Cera and Yi are a real-life couple. But it’s that blurring of the line between reality and the movie that elevates Paper Heart for me. The meta aspects speak directly to the film’s themes and to Yi’s persona; her stage show, which is briefly featured, is all about ironic distancing, and that’s what the meta aspects of the movie do. But what’s interesting is how the meta stuff allows that distancing to come full circle; while the cute, awkward courting on Cera’s part may be faked for the cameras, it’s completely true. Something doesn’t have to be real to be true, and just as the puppets allow us to come inside the love stories of the folks Yi interviews, the faux-doc stuff brings us inside the relationship between Cera and Yi.
Paper Heart is cute and touching, and more than a little romantic. I don’t know what the commercial viability of a film like this is, but I do think it’s the kind of movie that will find its audience, and its audience will adore it.