LOS ANGELES — Miraya Berke and Matt DeMartini had a wonderful two years cementing a friendship in high school. They’d bonded while making balloon arches in the early mornings as part of their student government duties and while practicing with the mock-trial team in the afternoons. On good days, he would offer her a ride home from school. On the best days, they would share a kiss.

See, if Berke’s life were a romantic comedy, it would begin with her 15-year-old self writing a letter to 17-year-old DeMartini, proclaiming that he missed his chance to date her. Berke had always hoped their closeness would blossom into a relationship.

But DeMartini was often pining for someone else, so he and Berke never made it out of friend territory. If the camera had captured them at prom — every teenage rom-com has a prom! — viewers would have seen DeMartini and Berke in the same group of dancegoers but not on each other’s arms. He invited someone else who wasn’t all that into him and asked one of his friends to be Berke’s date. The audience would sigh over that universal pain of a first unrequited love.

Before DeMartini headed to his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, Berke had to tell him how she felt. That letter, which she delivered in 2006, ended with a bold prediction: “Sometime you’ll finally realize what you missed out on and then maybe you will regret it.”

Thirteen years later, if that same camera were to catch up with a grown-up Berke, it would find the 29-year-old buzzing around the Downtown Independent theater, wearing a red, flowy Kate Spade dress smattered with hearts, posing on the pink carpet at the first-ever Rom Com Fest. She created this weekend-long event to celebrate a movie genre that is often beloved for being relatable and uplifting while criticized for being cliched, far-fetched and retrograde. Berke and the hundreds of other wide-eyed Nora Ephron disciples here acknowledge that the classics do not age well, but they adore these films anyway. Walking into a darkened theater, the love junkie knows she’s about to indirectly experience the pleasure of falling for someone and finding herself. It’s a delicious escape from the real-world terrors of Tinder.

Berke has long been a fan of rom-coms, and while devouring new ones on Netflix recently, she wondered: Why is this genre so rarely featured in film festivals? A movie buff and event planner, Berke decided to curate her own dream version of Sundance.

Miraya Berke, the creator of Rom Com Fest, considers herself to be a millennial version of Meg Ryan's character from "When Harry Met Sally." The three-day event celebrated love through film screenings, panel discussions, a comedy show and a live podcast recording. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)
Miraya Berke, the creator of Rom Com Fest, considers herself to be a millennial version of Meg Ryan's character from "When Harry Met Sally." The three-day event celebrated love through film screenings, panel discussions, a comedy show and a live podcast recording. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)

Over a weekend in late June, hopeless romantics in their 20s to 40s pack anniversary screenings of 1999 favorites “Never Been Kissed” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” amid several new independent films. “I ❤️ You” balloons sway in the wind just outside the theater. Inside, there are sweets — mochi, Ring Pops, buckets of fruity, fizzy drinks promising zero calories. Even the restroom looks wedding-shower-ready.

The seats are filled with women who dream of being the next Ali Wong or Candace Bushnell. Women who spent their teens chasing after boys and are spending their 20s chasing after girls. Women who saw Instagram ads for the festival, booked flights from Phoenix and told their families, “Mommy needs to do this.” Women who have “love” tattooed on their inner wrist.

Watching these movies is akin to mainlining hope into your brain. “You know it’s not real,” says Diana Cooper, a 32-year-old who’s here with her friend Jen. “But you hope one or two things from the movie could happen.”

Everyone here has an example of a rom-com moment that has happened in their real lives. A husband and wife almost meeting several times, and then waiting years until they were both single to start dating ... and eventually getting engaged in a Costco parking lot.

Like many who are single in the dating-app era, Cooper has had her share of frustrating false starts. “Remember that guy who broke up with me because he didn’t love me as much as he loved his twin sister?” she says to Jen.

Yes, he really said that.

After that doozy, Cooper took a two-year dating break. Now, with a fresh haircut, she feels physically prepared to date again — and she came to Rom Com Fest to get in the right head space. These movies are “a reminder that everything isn’t going to be perfect,” she says, “but what’s the harm in trying?”

Rom Com Fest's love-themed concession stand. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)
Rom Com Fest's love-themed concession stand. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)

They’re certainly not perfect when viewed in the #MeToo era. If a squirm had a sound, it would be an uncomfortable groan-laugh heard throughout the sold-out screening of “Never Been Kissed.” In the 1999 film, Drew Barrymore’s character Josie Geller is a journalist posing as a high school student to get a juicy story. She falls for her teacher, and he clearly likes her back.

In 2019, the movie is totally creepy, but fans still enjoy it. Jackie Le, who’s 24, likes that the movie is all about getting to relive the past. “I’d love the chance to fix what I’ve done wrong,” she says. Nothing big, just a chance to know the right thing to say and when. Neither Le nor her friend Jennifer Temores, 23, has been in a committed relationship. “That’s why we’re here,” Le says, “living vicariously through rom-coms.”

After the credits roll, Rachel Bloom, the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” creator, begins a question-and-answer session by apologizing for picking “Never Been Kissed” to screen. She hadn’t seen the film in about a decade, she says, and she had forgotten about the hints of pedophilia. However, Bloom still loves this film for the attention it gives to teenage dorks. A popular boy plays a mean prank on Geller that’s eerily similar to one that tormented Bloom as a middle-school student: In the seventh grade, her peers paid the most popular boy in school to ask her out ... as a joke.

This is when you hear the other side of that squirmy soundtrack: an empathic “awww.” Like many of the women in the audience, Bloom connected with these films because they made her feel less alone. “Maybe these movies reinforce stereotypes,” she acknowledges. “But on the other hand, it was the only time I really saw myself ... in these losers.”

“For so long, these types of movies were the only things being made for women,” Bloom continues. “And I think that we’re now really questioning: What art have we kind of pushed aside in a different category that we can now elevate?”

Which is exactly what this festival is aiming for. When a woman in the audience asks Bloom if teenagers should still watch these older rom-coms now that we have more diverse and politically correct hits such as “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe,” Bloom says yes. “Traditional” rom-coms show what the status quo once was, Bloom says, so that viewers can understand how the genre is evolving. For example, when “Always Be My Maybe” does its version of a sidekick telling the guy to go get his girl, instead of white dudes playing basketball or video games, it’s Randall Park’s character and his father in a Korean spa getting exfoliated. Bloom thought this “was one of the most brilliant parts of that movie.”

Many of the weekend’s newer independent films show how the genre is changing even further. They include characters navigating queer, polyamorous relationships. They don’t always end with a ring or even a kiss. One of the festival favorites, “In Reality,” centers on a woman’s quest to get over a breakup and find happiness in herself — a time-tested rom-com theme, but this time without the man.

Audience members watch performers at Rom Com Fest’s live "Mortified" storytelling event. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)
Audience members watch performers at Rom Com Fest’s live "Mortified" storytelling event. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)

Which brings us back to Berke’s own love story. Saturday afternoon, she tells Bloom about how, when she and her boyfriend were long-distance, they synced their Netflix to watch “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” together from opposite coasts. It’s as if they were millennial incarnations of the characters in “When Harry Met Sally” who would watch “Casablanca” from separate apartments, dissecting their favorite scenes over the phone.

A few hours later, at a “Mortified” comedy show, where adults read passages from childhood diaries or artifacts, Berke recites from her “Dear Matt” letter. “We ended up going to the same college,” she adds, “and a few times he tried to make out with me. But I always shot him down, told him he had missed his chance.”

The audience whoops and cheers in support of their heroine. But she continues, noting that she and DeMartini stayed in touch over the years. One night, 11 years after she wrote that letter, things seemed flirtier than usual. They were out for a fancy dinner in Los Angeles when DeMartini asked Berke if she would like to answer the 36 questions to fall in love, which are designed to increase the intimacy between two people. When prompted to share a regret, Berke said: “One of my biggest regrets was that nothing had ever happened between us.”

This time, DeMartini was more mature, “healthy single” as he puts it, rather than “rebound single,” as he had often been.

DeMartini leaned in for a kiss. Berke kissed back.

Though he was living in Oakland at the time and Berke was living in New York, he proceeded to woo her with the seriousness of an adult. They met for weekends in New Orleans and Florida. A few months in, DeMartini asked a question that Berke had waited a long time to hear: “Are you my girlfriend?”

She was.

Love notes left behind by Rom Com Fest attendees. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)
Love notes left behind by Rom Com Fest attendees. (Amanda Lopez for The Washington Post)

And as she told an abridged version of this story onstage, DeMartini recorded her performance, beaming from the sidelines. They’ve been together for three years and now live in Oakland. He helped her sift through all the festival’s movies. Berke says she has “been living in my own little rom-com as my high school crush came to real life.”

In the green room on the festival’s final day, DeMartini says many people have asked why he didn’t propose that weekend. He could have swooped in during Berke’s “Mortified” performance.

If it were 1999, he might have.

But DeMartini’s answer reflects a deep understanding of how rom-coms, and actual relationships, are evolving. Those blockbuster grand gestures — proposing on a Jumbotron, or during a girlfriend’s marathon, as one guy did recently — are now often seen as coercive or spotlight-stealing.

He’d thought about proposing. But it wasn’t the right time.

“I don’t want to undermine her big event,” he said. “That should be about the two of us.”

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