‘Love Hard’ is a sweet Christmas romcom about two people who fall in love while pretending to date. It’s a romantic and fun watch.
If you can forget the catfishing.
‘Love Hard’ is about catfishing. Protagonists Natalie (Nina Dobrev) and Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) meet via an online dating app and fall in love in a whirlwind two-week romance. They connect on every level but physical. Natalie never sees Josh; they only talk over text and phone calls. They never use FaceTime or Zoom or any of the other many video chat apps we have in the age of COVID.
Natalie decides to plan a surprise visit to Josh for Christmas anyway, only to discover he looks nothing like his profile pictures. But the man from the pictures—Tag (Darren Barnet)—is real, and she’s determined to be with him. So, Josh and Natalie strike a deal: she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend until Christmas and in return, he’ll help her date Tag.
I have a love-hate relationship with this movie, mostly because of the mixed messages on catfishing. Let’s start with the good stuff.
There’s a lot of good in ‘Love Hard’. The portrayal of modern online dating is scarily accurate. This movie showcases the two sides of online dating: how difficult it is to find the right person and how easy it is to form an intimate connection. Natalie and Josh fall in love quickly. They talk and text constantly but never see one another. This is where the movie shows the dangers of online dating: you can lose someone as easily as you gain them. Catfishing happens all the time, and it’s all too easy to become a victim.
Next, the feminism in this movie is awesome. It’s casual, it’s sometimes a great point of humor, but it’s also done really tastefully. Natalie feels relatable and realistic. When it comes to dating, Natalie prioritizes herself; she has certain standards, and she’s not going to lower the bar until she finds the right guy. That’s great for her! Natalie’s confidence in herself is very refreshing to see (which makes her changing herself for Tag later that much more disappointing).
Natalie also hates the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This song’s lyrics seem to be about a date rape if you actually listen. In the age of the #MeToo movement, this song makes many women uncomfortable. Natalie’s hatred of the song is brought back as a moment of bonding between her and Josh. Josh changes all of the man’s lyrics to make the song about consent, which is hilarious and actually done really well. I genuinely prefer this parody to the original. Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang have great chemistry and great voices here!
This brings me to another one of the best things about this movie: the romance between Natalie and Josh. Dobrev and Yang have wonderful chemistry. By far and away my favorite romantic scene is in the car after Josh and Natalie have just finished stealing newspapers showing their engagement announcement. Natalie is telling Josh that he was hiding his strengths in his previous profile pictures for the dating app. So she tells him what his best traits are: his teeth, and his eyes. The way she compliments his eyes is so heartfelt and sweet, my heart was melting with Josh’s.
The last good thing about ‘Love Hard’: the Asian representation. Seeing an Asian man like Jimmy O. Yang who doesn’t conform to Eurocentric beauty standards as a leading love interest in this movie is amazing. Yang exudes charm and has strong chemistry with Dobrev. His family is also fun. An obvious standout is Josh’s grandmother whose mischief brings plenty of laughs.
Fat best friend
Josh isn’t a “good guy”
Natalie has a fat best friend. Natalie’s friend isn’t even very big, but the character mentions she’s “big” and then makes a joke out of it. Where this movie breaks other stereotypes, it falls back into others.
When Natalie sees what Josh really looks like, she’s shocked and embarrassed. While she claims it’s not because he’s Chinese, the unspoken racism is the elephant in the room. Natalie was originally attracted to Tag, played by mixed actor Darren Barnet. Since his role on Never Have I Ever, Barnet’s mixed Japanese and white heritage has been a topic of discussion. Natalie was more attracted to Tag because of his proximity to whiteness—he fits the typical Eurocentric beauty standards more than Josh. This is internalized racism. In the movie, both Natalie and Josh say they wouldn’t have swiped on each other if they didn’t look the way they did. If this movie had discussed that a bit more instead of brushing it off, it would’ve been a better film
Another issue is Josh isn’t a “good guy,” as Natalie tells him. He’s likable and sympathetic, but he’s a complicated person. Josh catfished Natalie for weeks and didn’t think about the consequences for either of them. He lied about his identity. Once his brother announces his wife is pregnant to steal the spotlight, Josh impulsively proposes to Natalie in front of everyone to steal it back. He forces her into a sham engagement that temporarily destroys their friendship. Again, Josh shows no regard for her feelings.
Another problematic element is Natalie’s arc. While she claims not to care about appearance, clearly she does. As soon as she sees the real Tag, she’s practically drooling for him. She changes her entire identity, from her clothes to her interests, just to be with him. It’s humiliating to her character. Her feminism is suddenly out the door. She does to Tag the same thing Josh does to her; she lies about her identity. In the end, she confesses the truth to everyone and apologizes. At least she eventually realizes what she did was wrong and that she can’t be with someone just because of looks. She apologizes to Josh, too, to win him back.
But Josh never apologizes to her in the same way. Josh doesn’t have to make a big speech in front of the whole town to confess he catfished Natalie first, causing this whole mess. Josh is never held accountable. Tag never even admonishes him for using his pictures on the dating app. None of Josh’s family members question or criticize him about the catfishing. It’s so disappointing to see the woman bear the brunt of the blame while Josh gets off practically scot-free. He even gets the girl he catfished.
The biggest problem with ‘Love Hard’ is the way it portrays catfishing. It sends dangerous messages that maybe people can succeed catfishing someone. It also suggests that catfishers are guys who “didn’t set out to catfish.” These aren’t guys with malicious intent; they’re “nice guys”. But that’s not entirely true. While Josh’s internalized racism and self-hatred for his appearance is understandable because of our societal beauty standards (and should be discussed more), it’s no excuse for catfishing.