Film

Love And Chronic Illness: Why ‘The Big Sick’ Is The Rom-Com I’ve Been Waiting For

One more good reason to love this movie.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, the new film by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, is one of the best romantic-comedies I’ve seen in a long time. Like some of my favourite films in this genre — When Harry Met Sally, Beginners, Hello I Must Be Going — it embraces dark humour and big life changes without being heavy-handed.

Many film commentators are heralding The Big Sick as the return of the genre — one that’s been much-maligned due to the recent frequency of doe-eyed girls falling for emotionally withholding boys. Less gaudy than My Big Fat Greek Wedding but restrained from over-intellectualising, this is an accessible and crowd-pleasing indie film about cross-cultural love. It talks about race and culture in a post-9/11 world in a way in which few have succeeded.

But it was something else what made me rush out and see The Big Sick. As the title might tell you, it’s about someone being sick, and people don’t really get sick in the movies. Sometimes they get a cold — the kind where you’re all snotty and gross yet somehow adorable in your vulnerability. Sometimes they have a long kind of illness, but it usually ends in a dramatic death or revival as someone beats the odds — a nice, neat Hollywood kind of sick.

Very rarely are people in the movies burdened with the need to care long-term for a sick loved one. Very rarely do they stay.

The reality is that long-term sickness is incredibly common. A lot of people have illnesses that don’t go away easily. I know because I have a chronic illness (endometriosis) and as a result of my long-term condition I get spells of chronic pain in my pelvis. It’s debilitating enough to regularly keep me home from work, and require multiple specialists and intense treatments. After a sharp decline in my health earlier this year, I was admitted to hospital twice in six weeks.

I am far from alone too. Half of Australians live with at least one chronic illness, and one quarter have two or more illnesses that are long-term, painful and messy. In the US, 40 percent of the population is affected by chronic illness; one of those people was the film’s co-writer Emily V. Gordon, who developed adult onset Still’s Disease.

Girlfriend In A Coma

The Big Sick is based on the real-life relationship of Nanjiani and Gordon. Kumail (Nanjiani playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) meet at a comedy club where Kumail is performing. They lock eyes after Emily heckles him during his set. They have a drink. They go home together. The next day both agree they are ‘not really dating right now’ and that they won’t call, but of course cue montage of them repeating this enough times until they find themselves dating.

It’s a true representation of dating in the 21st Century — casual hookups that somehow merge into dating that eventually leads to the ‘what are we’ conversation. At this point of the film the relationship is dominated by cultural difference, one that Kumail feels is too great to overcome. Soon after they break up Emily is suddenly rushed to hospital.

When Kumail first arrives at the emergency department Emily is sitting up in bed wearing a hospital gown, with a cannula in her arm. She is pale and with dark shadows under her eyes and looks agitated yet bored, on her phone killing time while she waits for test results. This was the first moment in the film that I realised Gordon saw me. She knows what it’s like. She’s been there.

Soon after Emily is placed in a medically-induced coma to allow the doctors to diagnose her rapidly deteriorating condition. Kumail is instructed to call Emily’s parents. Having never met, having broken up with their daughter a few weeks prior, Kumail is now sitting in a hospital waiting room making awkward small talk.

It’s in these scenes that we see Kumail’s staying power. There are plenty of times he could leave, but he doesn’t. There are plenty of times things could have got too hard, the commitment too great, but he remains unperturbed.

When Emily’s parents arrive at the Chicago hospital after flying in from North Carolina, Emily’s mum covers her daughter with a homemade quilt, gently tucking her in to the hospital bed. It’s just one of the universal moments of love and nurture that occur in the film that show its audience it doesn’t matter where we come from or what we believe, whether we are sick or whether we are well, we all strive for love.

Sick People Want To Hook Up Too

In the weeks leading up to my most recent surgery, I was chatting to a guy on Tinder. At first just occasionally, but at some point that became every day. We had long conversations about our families, our dreams, dogs we would like to own — the big things. We talked about meeting when I was well enough. He knew I was having surgery, he knew I was sick. He said nice things but I could tell he didn’t really get it. A few days before my surgery, he disappeared. I don’t blame him for thinking it was all too much, and I’m too exhausted to ask him why.

This is just a part of what it’s like to date as a sick person. There’s an uncertainty that plagues us — not knowing when we’ll have a flare, when we’ll deteriorate, when we’ll need help or when we’ll be self-sufficient. These things are not just hard for the sick person, they’re hard for partners too. They’re hard for partners dealing with a sudden illness like Emily’s, but they’re potentially harder still for partners who haven’t had a chance to know the person when they’re well.

As my health was spiralling, tragically timed to perfectly coincide with cuffing season, I paused my accounts on the dating apps I was using. I had to cancel dates regularly, I didn’t want to have to explain what was going on, and I didn’t know at what point I would need to have that conversation.

I don’t blame him for thinking it was all too much, and I’m too exhausted to ask him why.

When the pain got worse still, I would disappear for days or weeks at a time. When you resurface a week later in a drug-induced fog, what do you tell the guy on Tinder you were flirting with? What do you tell the guy you had a drink with last week then accidentally ghosted? What do you when you’ve just recovered from surgery and are more conscious than ever of your scars and bruises — not sure if sex will be painful or if you’re even ready to be touched? How do you start dating strangers again?

There are plenty of articles, blogs and forums that talk about the impact of illness on relationships. How many dates until the big reveal. How they’ll cope with the news. What their reaction says about them and the relationship. But dating isn’t always so traditional. Where are the conversations for people drunkenly hooking up with someone enough times that they decide to slightly less drunkenly hook up with them over dinner, then eventually realise they’ve accidentally been dating for months?

A Love To Aspire To

Dating while sick is arguably even more difficult for women. From a young age, boys are told that ‘chicks dig scars’, but girls are all too often judged as crazy bitches, moody bitches, fat bitches, and asked if they’re “on their period”. Girls and women are looked down upon for appearing different in any way from the unrealistic portrayals of women on our screens.

In the murky swamp that is heterosexual dating in 2017, there is frankly enough to be anxious about without having an illness. So it’s important to me that in The Big Sick it’s Emily who is sick and Kumail that stays. While the film does fall in line with the general heteronormativity of the genre, it is notable in this way.

The Big Sick gives hope to the sick without condescending, and it shows partners that illness doesn’t eclipse the person they love.

As Manohla Dargis writes for The New York Times, The Big Sick is “revitalising an often moribund subgenre with a true story of love, death and the everyday comedy of being a 21st-century American”. There is a universality to this film, which is admirable in any work; let alone one that tackles identity in multiple ways with deep thought and sensitivity. It would be just as easy for audiences from Nanjiani’s native Pakistan to love this film as those from Gordon’s United States. It would be as easy for audiences who have never broken a bone to love it the same as I did after two decades of chronic illness.

For me, The Big Sick is the rom-com I’ve been waiting for. Not only does it negotiate dating in the age of hook-up culture, but it also combines this with dating in a time of illness. The Big Sick gives hope to the sick without condescending, and it shows partners that illness doesn’t eclipse the person they love.

Relationships are messy and dating is fraught, even when you’re well. Being sick won’t stop you from finding love. It might be complicated, it might take time to find the right person who sees through your illness, it might take even longer to see if they are willing to stay. The Big Sick gives us a love to aspire to, and when you’re dating while sick sometimes you need to be reminded that — as cheesy as it is — love conquers all.

The Big Sick is in cinemas now.

Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide. She tweets (very often about footy) at @kyliemaslen or you can see her work at kyliemaslen.com