A science fiction film starring Jessie Buckley, which also features Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White? Obviously there was no way I wasn’t going to watch that. But there’s a problem: Fingernails (2023) isn’t really science fiction. It merely borrows the tropes, draping them over one shoulder like a stylish metaphor cloak.
Fingernails posits an alternate past, circa turn of the millennium, which has been transformed by the perfection of the science of love. By performing a genetic compatibility test, the Love Institute can confirm and “certify” romantic matches. The cost of the test is painful: an extracted fingernail. Schoolteacher Anna (Buckley) is one of the lucky ones: she “tested positive” with her boyfriend Ryan (White), a perfect match. Nonetheless, she’s plagued by vague discontent, which prompts her—without Ryan’s knowledge—to pursue a new line of work, driven by unacknowledged dissatisfaction. The job? It’s as a researcher at the Love Institute, where she’s paired with a more experienced employee named Amir (Ahmed). Initially, their professional friendship is cordial, but before long Anna starts to fall for Amir, causing her to question the very tenets of the life she’s been leading.
There is so much promise to Fingernails, and it’s not just the enticing cast. The early stages possess subtle, offbeat world-building as the film fleshes out the central speculative lie: the paradigm-shifting test that transforms society’s pursuit of romantic partnerships. The presence of Luke Wilson as a Love Institute honcho teases humorous quirkiness to this alternate reality, but Wilson plays it straight—and so does the rest of the film, failing to capitalize on potentially gonzo aspects of what might have played as a woefully inept pseudoscience. Instead, then, the film is driven by plot—which, unfortunately, is a rather conventional romantic-drama conundrum. A woman, rendered complacent by societal expectations, bucks the conventional wisdom when true love strikes. Fortunately, that woman is played by Jessie Buckley, who is as compellingly watchable as always. She has good chemistry with Ahmed, White is also good, and there are other fine actors in the mix like Amanda Arcuri, Christian Meer, and Annie Murphy. As a cast, they deliver fine moments, but deconstructing the story beats it quickly becomes apparent that the science fictional content adds nothing. It has simply been deployed as a convenient, allegorical veneer for what is otherwise a mundane, forgettable relationship drama. Come for the acting, perhaps, but don’t stay expecting much else.