Review: Dear Nathan is a clear-cut boy-meet-a-girl story. A bon-chic-bon-genre girl, Salma (Amanda Rawles) unexpectedly meets a violent, rich yet troubled greaser, Nathan (Jefri Nichol), after both come late for school with opposite reasons. Salma’s simple act of compassion, to which Nathan returns with a completely different act of valor, leads these two youngsters into the offspring of coming-of-age romance fraught with cute moments and teen angst at once.
People are aware that coming-of-age romance is prone to uninviting clichés and hormone-induced exaggeration. With all those traits, there’s this thought that this genre is designed solely to its target audiences – adolescences, mostly adolescent girls; and, audiences outside that circle (adolescent boys and grown-ups) will find it tedious and delusional. On the surface, Dear Nathan – adapted from a sensation-laden Wattpad phenomenon – is exactly ‘that kind of coming-of-age romance.’ It’s cliché-ridden, saccharine-laced and unfocused; but it’s grounded to reality and, more importantly, accurate.
Its grounded accuracy is what makes it universally relatable, whether to teens or older generations; it almost seems like people, at some time of their lives, are able to connect to the story in one way or another. While there’s over-dramatization here and there, Indra Gunawan’s direction is surprisingly able to restraint the film from being a superfluous extravaganza. High school life is portrayed as natural as possible; although, we must admit that a character’s larger-than-life backstory is a little too much.
In fact, it’s not the over-the-top character traits, which stitch the narrative together; but it’s some little sparks – which might happen to everyone else – that do. Simple things, like crush-texting problem, meet-cute, ‘normal’ first date, bookshop date, and many others, are portrayed sympathetically and naturally. In the environment where real-life teens attempt to “do adult things” – like public display of affection or romantic couple trip, Dear Nathan exhibits how lo-fi teen romance makes the extraordinaire without patronizing.
While Nathan and Salma’s relationship becomes the epicenter, Dear Nathan brings along some bigger issues to the frame. From juvenile delinquency, identity crisis, parental issue, feeling of neglected, peer pressure and self-acceptance, a compact list of teen angsts is tagged along. While those long list, at some point, distracts the plot from its main focus (how Nathan and Salma’s blooming romance makes Nathan a better person), those cramped issues are what make it even more grounded.
The simple thought is: You’re not a teenager if you know what you’re doing, if you’re not confused, and if you’re focused. That’s what makes the grey-white colors in Indonesian high school uniform feels as symbolic as ever. There are no good and bad teenagers; only the good ones – like Salma – and the troubled ones – those who are lost and confused like Nathan. Whether it is intentional or not, Dear Nathan embraces this symbolism warmly.
Both lead performers, Jefri Nichol and Amanda Rawles, lend their cutest chemistry to Dear Nathan to make it sugary; yet, it’s their individual performances which win the favor. Rawles’ portrayal of a dreamgirl is ideal; and, Nichol’s titular character, despite often falls into melodrama, is surprisingly likable. Both powerhouse performances strongly drive the narrative; too strong that it overshadows other characters.
In the end, we’ll never know how far their love will venture in their fictional future; but knowing how they venture at the end of this story certainly gets all the bliss. Despite all the teenlit clichés, Dear Nathan is still a well-acted, feel-good high school romance that smoothly brings back those good ol’ grey-and-white days relevantly.