[Between the Lines] Why ‘Palm Springs’ (2020) Should Have Been Nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.

This aritcle contains spoilers for Palm Springs.

At the time of writing this column, in just a few days the Oscars will be presented from across the globe, signifying the end of a turbulent awards season. Chloe Zhao’s poetic Nomadland is set to sweep the big awards after taking numerous Best Picture awards from the likes of the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, and the Best Original Screenplay category looks to be similarly predictable. Emerald Fennell’s controversial Promising Young Woman has bagged screenplay awards at the BAFTAs and Writers Guild Awards, only losing out to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 at the Golden Globes.

This year’s group of original screenplays competing for the Oscar features a particularly strong lineup, and it’s great to see screenplays like Sound of Metal nominated. But without diminishing the nominees, there is one screenplay that should have made the cut. While it managed to secure a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards, the time loop comedy Palm Springs has seen next to no recognition from the big awarding bodies. The first feature screenplay from Andy Siara, who devised the story with the film’s director, Max Barbakow, Palm Springs is a fresh, hilarious, and surprisingly emotional ride that cleverly uses the time loop concept to tell an original story.

The time loop concept isn’t exactly novel these days. Groundhog Day—considered the granddaddy of time loop films— has given way to numerous films, shows, and special episodes that use the same concept. There are several ways, however, that Siara and Barbakow make their time-bending story stand out. Palm Springs is centred on a wedding day where nihilistic guest Nyles (Andy Samberg) and gloomy maid of honour Sarah (Cristin Milioti) are stuck with each other in a never-ending time loop. From the very beginning, the writers change things up by having Nyles already in the time loop, giving the audience little clues through dialogue and Nyles’ behaviour that he has in fact been in the time loop for an extremely long time. However, it’s through Sarah, who we see become trapped in the time loop, that the audience is introduced to the set-up.

A man sitting in the passenger seat of a car shoots a look of concern towards the driver, a woman clutching the steering wheel and a can of beer, who is contemplating a thought.
Image courtesy of Hulu

From here, Siara and Barbakow constantly surprise the audience by tackling staples of this particular genre head-on. Most time loop movies see the protagonist escape the loop by becoming a better person and learning a lesson that makes them change, leading them to magically wake up on the next calendar day. Nyles and Sarah exhaust all of their options of escaping the loop— not sleeping, driving away from the wedding, suicide— and the film emphasises Sarah’s attempt of doing something good, to become more selfless and be a better person. Her heroic deed does nothing however, leading Sarah to embrace the meaningless life she now leads with Nyles. What does eventually get the pair out of the loop is relatively simple: scientific logic. Having Sarah use each day to research quantum physics and theorise how to break out from the loop gives her character agency and avoids the well-trodden trope of having a character realise they’re a flawed person to escape the loop. The act of figuring out how to physically return to normality is still tied to Sarah and Nyles’ character arcs: during the third act, Sarah wants to escape the loop now having overcome her flaws, but Nyles would rather stay in the loop and embrace the meaninglessness of life and the universe.

So why hasn’t Palm Springs been nominated? The biggest culprit would be the Academy itself, and it’s easy to see why. Over the last ten years, there has only been one true comedy feature nominated for Best Original Screenplay: Bridesmaids, which was nominated back in 2011. Of course, there have been several comedy dramas nominated throughout the past decade— from The Kids Are All Alright to The Big Sick— but those movies aren’t primarily marketed as comedies, like Bridesmaids and Palm Springs. It seems there is still the stigma that comedies aren’t serious enough to even be nominated for— let alone win— such a prestigious award. The Writers Guild tends to be more welcoming towards comedy features compared to the Academy, but the Oscars still remain the most influential awards for the entire industry. This is why they need to diversify the genres of the films featured in each group of nominees.

Outside of awards season, Palm Springs has fortunately seen huge success: breaking the record for the highest sale of a film from Sundance, having the biggest opening weekend on streaming platform Hulu, and currently sitting at a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Palm Springs doesn’t need recognition at the Oscars, as audiences, critics and guilds know how much of a well-crafted, fun and thoughtful story Siara and Barbakow have crafted. If the Academy did nominate Palm Springs however, it would help validate genre features as stories and works of art that are deserving of praise.

The Palm Springs screenplay can be found here.

Header image courtesy of Hulu