Jack and Willow Pragma Still by Robbie James Gray

Short film ‘Pragma’ has plenty to value as it explores a scientific approach to a more secure form of love

Pragma, written by and starring Lucy Heath, directed by Ellie Heydon, and produced by Phil Dunster, who also stars, is an unusual lesson about modern love. The film’s surprising premise is a vehicle for some very sound psychology. Read our review now.

I first caught Pragma earlier this year as part of the Underwire Film Festival, a BAFTA recognised celebration of shorts recognising female talent; films, like this one, with a majority balance of women in key production roles. In April, it was announced that Pragma had been selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, and I was pleased to receive a review copy of the film in advance of its US premiere on June 10, and study what it had to say in more detail.

Pragma is a neat and gripping 19 minutes, long enough to dwell upon, short enough to leave you wanting more. It was conceptualized and written by Lucy Heath, directed by Ellie Heydon, and produced by Phil Dunster and Fay Mohamed. Dunster, who happens to be giving my favorite performance so far (from what I think we can all agree is a very deep bench) on the hit Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, is the one who initially connected the creative team — Heath, being an old school friend, Heydon, his real-life partner, and Mohamed, a crew colleague from Lasso — and it’s through his social media that I learned about the existence of the film as well.

The premise of Pragma seemed clear enough on paper — a chance to scout out your soulmate via data — but I still wasn’t too sure what to expect, what angle might be taken when investigating this potentially dystopian idea. However, as soon as I saw the rather brilliantly cut trailer, with its shift from comedy to introspection, it was clear that the filmmakers were tapping into something very unexpected, and very special. A warm voice that you can’t help but trust tells us that ‘pragma’ is the forever love, the kind of love you stand in, rather than fall in, and my honest reaction was “Thank God someone is finally talking about this.” I was all in, and my initial interest in the casting took a back seat to my new and rampant interest in the concept.

Don’t get me wrong. The casting is great. Pragma is incredibly sensitively performed, with a couple of characters in particular imbued with such a rich inner life that I’m left wanting more. More on that in a minute; I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m not being effusive about this film because I’m disproportionately obsessed with Jamie Tartt. I mean, I definitely am disproportionately obsessed with Jamie Tartt, but this is a correlation does not equal causation situation. Okay? Okay. Moving on.

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Pragma follows Willow, played by screenwriter Heath, as she arrives at the titular event, a week-long live-in partner-matching program that appears to be something of an exclusive retreat. Participants are standing-ovation level excited about meeting the founder, Professor Josephs — there’s a slight wellness cult vibe to the whole thing — but no backstory is given as to why each of the key players have chosen to sign up. One can only assume that they’ve been unlucky in love the old-fashioned way, and are yearning for what the program promises.

Given that these people all presumably believe in Josephs’ work, chose to provide the program with lots of personal data for the algorithm, and are, in fact, painted as very lucky to have been selected at all, it seems like the Professor’s one request — that they choose to trust the process — should be a no-brainer.

But of course it’s not.

In the group’s initial assembly, Willow immediately begins trading sneaky looks with a man she’s clearly instantly attracted to — Dunster, at his smoulderiest. The lad’s name is Jack; naturally, he and Willow are delighted to be partnered right off the bat as a potential couple. But after an assessment involving enigmatically staring into each other’s eyes for a bit while Dr. Francis — Dunster’s Ted Lasso co-star Nick Mohammed, what a treat — presumably runs their numbers, Willow and Jack are swiftly deemed incompatible by the system, and are paired with more algorithmically correct matches. For Willow, whose point of view we stick with, it’s Tom, played by an affable Sid Sagar, who recently had a lovely turn in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.

Tom seems fine. He’s cute, he’s very nice. He’s a bit awkward, maybe a bit rigid. He’s not styled to look particularly striking, like Jack. He’s not flashy. Willow obviously doesn’t feel a spark. But there is nothing wrong with Tom, and if I had paid what I’m guessing is a fair bit of money for the privilege of attending soulmate school where I’d been specifically told that sparks aren’t sustainable, I wouldn’t skip out on him so fast. As a matter of fact, there are a number of things laid out that lend to the idea that they are, in ways both tiny and pretty huge, the same type of person, and well-positioned to be able to relate to one another.

But Jack and Willow reject their Pragma partners in favour of a clandestine hook-up, and Willow is forced to contend with a challenging decision — is she going to give up on the program in order to pursue this impulsive attraction? Or should she stick with Pragma after all?

You can read the filmmakers’ description of this same synopsis on their Kickstarter page, but as I mentioned, I had no clue what the ultimate tonal take-away would be, what we were “meant” to root for. This is where Pragma really struck me hardest, because the most interesting thing about the film is the fact that it doesn’t take a cynical, clinical lens to a story that could very easily be told in a cynical, clinical way.

From other minds, a concept like Pragma could become a properly dystopian horror story about control and the suppression of natural emotion. Even here, with cameras in the bedrooms, it should feel like Big Brother, but somehow it just doesn’t. Instead, it’s a kind-hearted albeit systematic approach to fostering belief in a psychology I think many could attempt to better understand: that the healthiest form of love is a choice, an action, a decision.

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So many narratives about love tell us to just go for it — to take the risk, to cast stability to the winds and do something crazy. That a safe choice is, somehow, weak. Recklessness is aspirational, because love is all you need. Sure. That’s a cool idea. That’s exciting, in a story. We’ve all gotten swept up in those stories.

In many ways, I now hate those passionate love stories I once clung to and cited as the only “real” love worth having. I hesitate to blame stories for real life problems, but this idea is invasively enduring in our culture, beyond the realm of fiction. This is what we’ve been told the heart is all about. And I’ll be frank, internalizing that stuff as a teenager led to bad, sometimes dangerous decisions in relationships. I know I’m certainly not alone in that.

I feel like stories about enduring love often tend to be about old people. And you know what? I fucking love old people movies. I have since I was fairly young, actually — perhaps I should have paid more attention to why they felt so comforting. They’re not upsetting, not earth-shaking. No fireworks, no roller coasters. Just a quiet stillness, representing something predictable, rather than passionate. And as most people grow up, they learn the hard way that actually, “boring,” or what outsiders may perceive as boring, is pretty much what you need to make something work.

Look, I’m not trying to say that no successful relationships have ever started with fireworks. It’s more that you have to keep making the choice to actively love one another after the sparks fade, and many people never do. They expect to be able to live in that fiery first flush forever, because that’s the lie they’ve always been sold about what love looks like. In the grand scheme, the sparks are almost meaningless. It’s what comes after that matters. And the Pragma program asks participants to acknowledge that, to come to terms with skipping the fizzy, exciting crush stage, and step into something more solid immediately, as an active choice.

That’s bloody brilliant, in my opinion. That’s radical. I think I’m still a little stunned that the filmmakers’ voices, in Pragma, do not seem to be declaring “This is warped and wrong,” about the things being presented to us. They seem, rather, to be saying “Yeah, you should probably listen to this.” I love that Heath and Heyden are telling this story now, aimed at people of our own generation, and I’d love to see their ideas expanded upon in any number of directions.

Central to all things Pragma is Professor Josephs, played by Amanda Hale. It’s her voice in the trailer, the one I said you can’t help but trust. Hale’s performance is patient and gentle. It’s a bit omniscient, actually, a bit goddess-like, but also a little fragile, a little tired, especially in her moments with Willow and Jack privately, and every time she speaks, I want to know about how this all started for her. Is this purely academic for her, or did Pragma perhaps come from her own personal pain?

Why the Pragma program even exists would make for a pretty good jumping off point, in terms of further examining the validity of this alternative approach to finding romantic love. I, for one, am keen to have this conversation, to tap further into the pros and cons of Pragma’s psychology in terms of how we value certain relationships, even if people in real life might not be too keen to sign up for the fictional data-mining element.

Western culture balks at the idea of arranged marriages, but for many cultures, not to mention throughout much of history, they’ve frequently been successful. And not just putting-up-with-it successful. Love has the potential to grow deep when you commit to doing life together and then work at loving each other on purpose. That’s basically the product Pragma is selling, with the additional scientific assurance of compatibility.

I love that Heath and Heydon’s vision represents a world where people, fairly early on, are aiming for that. That this is recognised as desirable, as a potentially better way. That young people are re-thinking what true love means. Because the fact is, pragmatism is boring for a lot of people. People want to be consumed by their feelings, they want to feel something special. Romance is so, well, romantic. Being feelings-led in the first instance is seen as the love that people dream of. Head decisions are cold and callous, heart decisions are warm and worthwhile.

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On one hand, I get it. On the other, can we all admit that too much heart tends to end bloody? The love that grows when you’ve chosen to care for someone is something you can nurture more sustainably than ‘eros,’ the uncontrolled surge of feelings batting you around like a boat on a stormy sea. Like Pragma says at one point, we’re hardwired to want love, but we don’t need to just let it happen to us.

I can’t say for sure if the filmmakers wanted to weigh the potential rightness or wrongness of the Pragma principle one way or another. But I do suspect they did, a little, because to me, at least, it seems obvious. The potential truth of Pragma niggles like a sore tooth: sweet, tender, needed, inevitable, and the film’s twist, if you can call it that, leaves me with no doubt that in this world, Pragma works.

Pragma will have its US premiere on June 10 at the Tribeca Film Festival, with further screenings on June 15 and June 19. Tickets to some screenings may still be available.

US residents can also stream Pragma along with all the other films in the “Sex, Love and Rock and Roll” program from June 12, with the purchase of a Tribeca At Home Shorts Pass for $25.

Photo credit for all stills including header: Robbie James Gray