One can only dream of having a morning routine as breezy, efficient, and cheeky as seventeen-year-old Mark (Kyle Allen) in the opening scene of Amazon’s The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, a soothing romcom, buoyed by excellent lead performances, that glides on seamless choreography as much as its romantic hijinks. Mark, a prototypical white American teen with a backwards hat, sunglasses and iPod headphones, sails through the film’s unbroken, eye-catching first montage, nailing every mark as if he’s rehearsed it a thousand times: toss a snack to a jogger, snatch a coffee from the top of a car, swing his bike into a just-emptied parking spot, hop into a pick-up bed, give directions to the cute girl on the corner without her needing to ask where, or how.
The hook of watching someone command an ordinary day with panache, knowing the rhythm of finite time like the back of one’s hand, is one of the early pleasures of the film directed by Ian Samuels (2018’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser) and written by Lev Grossman based on his short story of the same name. The control, it’s soon clear, derives from Mark’s peculiar predicament: he has rehearsed this dozens of times, because he’s stuck in a time loop, reliving the same summer day over and over again.
Mark’s grooved, cyclical existence is upended by the arrival of Margaret (Big Little Lies’ Kathryn Newton), the only other person mired in what the two mutually call their “temporal anomaly”. Given that they are the only two with free will to change their day, Mark and Margaret quickly strike up a barbed, compelling friendship of mutual appreciation. Mark is the directionless artist immediately smitten with the mysterious blonde, liable to disappear without warning yet warm to his fascinations with the minutiae of The Day. Margaret is the enigma, a beauty with a dream of becoming a Nasa mission specialist, who will ramble about the unknown fourth dimension – “I’m just glad that Stephen Hawking isn’t here to see this because it totally violates all known science,” she says of the loop – but loathe to discuss any details of friends and family.
With infinite time at 17, the pair embark on an endearingly cheesy mission: to observe, appreciate, and “collect” (“kinda like Pokemon,” Mark says) all the tiny, usually unseen, “perfect” moments in their small town (location unclear – Margaret has a Kentucky area code, though it was filmed on location in Alabama). The film’s middle section is a fluid, understated ode to pristine mundanity; the pair observe an elderly woman’s perfect hand of cards, traffic stop for a tortoise, the improbably alignment of a car logo’s wings with a sitting pedestrian, the clouds form a question mark, the little things that trip one’s daily focus from the step ahead to awe.
It’s obvious, given that they’re the same age, attractive, and the only two people trapped in a time flux, that Mark and Margaret will end up together, and that doing so may hold the key to escape; the protraction of the romance is a genre staple, one the film enjoyably milks for mystery, remaining coy on Margaret’s hesitance for romance or a future beyond The Day until late in the second half. Mark, meanwhile, channels his frustration into some useful lesson for a 17-year-old boy: be less self-obsessed, goddammit. It’s unclear how Mark’s refocused, newly generous attention – asking his dad (Josh Hamilton) how his book project is going, asking his sister Emma’s (Cleo Fraser) opinion – can bend some of the concrete outcomes of The Day but it doesn’t really matter; it’s a charming, small-scale revelation, in line for a film whose heart lies in the micro joys of ordinary, under-appreciated moments.
Though its hard not to laugh at some cliched lines – “we’re not like other people,” Mark tells Margaret – Grossman’s script for the most part threads the difficult needle between endearing, casual teen banter and fantastical concept, a pleasing tone heightened by Allen and Newton’s disarming, grounded performances. (I can’t decide if Allen, 26, physically looks like a 17-year-old, but he certainly conveys the live-wire emotion of one; Newton’s performance, deadpan delivery with a cherubic face, keeps Margaret from straying too far into manic-pixie-dream girl territory).
There are holes in this fictional time-loop fabric – is there a butterfly effect? – which the film minimizes by staying almost entirely within the confines of its town and established romcom terrain (longing, art school dream v practical reality, the specter of loss to illness). Though the script includes several pop culture references, larger, darker themes that refract through any day in America – politics, racial injustice, any tie to the frenzied news cycle that changes by the hour – are absent here.
Which is not so much a gripe as a consequence of the film’s aim to please. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things holds a contained, idealized world – a trove of romcom enjoyment and small treasures I had no problem looping through.