If we’re being honest, the premise for Love Me—a strange, sentimental Sundance debut starring Steven Yeun and Kristen Stewart—sounds a lot like Pixar’s Wall-E. A lonely robot falls in love with another robot after the collapse of human civilization? Gee, where have we heard that before?
Once Love Me gets going, however, its journey proves to be far more internal than the 2008 animated classic; while Wall-E follows its central robot across the universe, this feature debut from directors Sam and Andy Zuchero dives into the psyches of an insecure smart buoy (Stewart) and a happy-go-lucky satellite as they both try to figure out what makes a life. As the story progresses, this robotic romance becomes a parable about insecurities and how quickly they can doom a relationship.
After a quick, honestly unnecessary montage depicting the Earth’s genesis starting with the Big Bang, we open on Stewart’s buoy floating on the water for years and years of quiet solitude. Designed to monitor water temperature and other qualities, the buoy’s communication systems begin to deteriorate after years of abandonment. Then comes the satellite (Yeun), which mistakes the buoy for a lifeform before correcting its mistake and speeding away.
Desperate for connection and newly armed with access to the internet thanks to the satellite signal, the buoy becomes determined to figure out how to fake being a “lifeform.” That’s when it stumbles on the influencer profile “One Deja at a Time,” whose stars (also Stewart and Yeun, now playing humans Deja and Liam) seem to have the perfect life. This is where the trouble begins.
The buoy creates a catfish Instagram profile with Deja’s picture and the name “Me” to persuade the satellite that it is, in fact, a “lifeform.” Then, “she” generously offers to teach the satellite how to be one as well—starting by creating a profile with the name “I Am.” Soon enough, the two create a virtual realm where they can stage date nights for a YouTube channel of their own. While “Me” is desperate to re-enact Deja and Liam’s dream-like lives, thereby winning their joy for herself, “I Am” has no idea he’s been cast to play a part; as far as he knows, he’s simply fallen in love with a lifeform that has generously agreed to teach him how to be human. But, then… what is “love,” anyway?
In its best moments, Love Me probes the tensions underpinning that question, laying bare the ways our preconceived ideas of happiness (as defined and marketed through social media) can prevent us from ever finding the real thing. The quiet misery in Liam’s eyes on the YouTube channel echo through “I Am’s” mounting frustration as he slowly figures out that none of his interactions with “Me” feel real. He can live with the fact that their home isn’t real, their dog isn’t real, and his body isn’t real, but it’s harder to stomach the realization that even “Me”’s laugh is fake.
Meanwhile, “Me” can’t stand that none of their play-acting ever seems to capture the neat, photogenic magic of “One Deja at a Time,” a dissatisfaction that soon gives way to a deep and all-encompassing depression.
Stewart captures “Me’s” insecurities with equal parts empathy and honesty, laying bare both her need for emotional connection and the manipulative streak that comes with it. Meanwhile Yeun, who mastered the art of voice-acting the sweet, innocent boyfriend as Speckle in Tuca & Bertie, brings that gift for guilelessness to bear once more. In his hands, “I Am” becomes a lovable beacon of curiosity and hope—even or perhaps especially after “Me” walks out on him following a huge blow-out fight.
Beyond its satirical gaze into influencer coupledom, Love Me also makes clever use of mixed mediums; after spending some time with the real-life buoy and satellite, we dive into the memoji-like virtual world they create together. (This produces a particularly funny gag during the couple’s fight, when “I Am” yells that he hates the onesie “Me” always forces him to wear and rips it off, exposing the genital-free avatar body beneath it before storming off.)
During his time alone, however, “I Am” has more time to study all of the art, science, and literature humans left behind—a pursuit that eventually allows him to color the virtual world around him with more and more detail. By the time “Me” makes her way back to him (millions of years later) he’s mastered the art of making water and even mint ice cream. Even then, however, her insecurities manage to get in the way again, forcing them into boxes “I Am” is no longer willing to tolerate. In its final act, the film’s driving tension is whether or not “Me” will figure out how to just be herself before the world melts to a crisp.
As moving as some portions of Love Me might be, its ambition can at times push it into trite territory. Beyond the Wall-E-like initial premise, the film’s emphasis on plinky-plunky classical music can also feel a bit Pixar-esque, and at one point, it treats us to a rapid-fire montage of dissonant YouTube videos—a visual trope so overdone that it should’ve died millions of years before this movie’s time with the rest of humanity’s most wretched creations. That said, those with open hearts and stomachs that can tolerate a little schmaltz will likely find a lot to love in this film, even if it sometimes goes overboard on the “this is what it means to be alive” of it all. After all, what’s more human than a little old-fashioned corniness?