Some movies you watch knowing you’ll never watch them again—unless you really need a good cry. “Sitting in Bars With Cake” is one of those movies. The Prime Video film starts like any other young adult movie that centers an intimate relationship between two antithetical yet conjoining friends: They’re at a social event where one stands in the center of the party, acting as its pulse, while the other smiles with quiet admiration from the periphery.
Jane (Yara Shahidi) and Corinne (Odessa A’zion) are childhood friends turned L.A. roommates trying to traverse their uncertain romantic relationships and careers in a new city. In an attempt to thrive in their chaotic environment, they each maintain specific roles in their friendship. Jane acts as the chaperone, circling Corinne to ensure everything is in order, from their rent payments to cleaning lint out of the dryer. Meanwhile Corinne is the free spirit who leans into her desires and constantly pushes Jane to do the same. This familiar push-pull eventually drives the two to embark on an unconventional journey that screenwriter Audrey Shulman calls “cakebarring”.
After Corinne witnesses the power Jane’s cake has over potential male suitors in a bar during her birthday celebration, she suggests Jane bake one cake a week for a year to take to bars in an attempt to meet men and become more social. While the proposition sounds strange, it’s based on Shulman’s real-life attempt to find a boyfriend a decade ago. But what started as a clear mission became more complex and jarring when the cookbook author’s best friend and roommate Chrissy was diagnosed with brain cancer.
By now, audiences are used to watching a cancer story play out on film. Usually it involves a character stricken with cancer falling in love with someone despite their better judgment; think tearjerkers like “A Walk to Remember” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” But this particular movie is different in that it transfers the main spotlight from romance to young caregiving.
Rarely do we get to see the stories of caregivers represented on screen, let alone the opportunity to explore the experience of a young person becoming the primary one for a peer. When the film’s not busy remembering its premise of Jane baking her way into the hearts of strangers, it convincingly portrays the confusion, awareness, and intimacy that comes with being a caregiver for someone you love.
Shulman and director Trish Sie manage to get the smallest details right, which starts with the introduction of Corinne’s parents who are delightfully played by Ron Livingston and Martha Kelly. Livingston fully embraces the vulnerable jitteriness of a father who is used to mending things. His character feels the need to be productive every second by getting his hands on anything he can fix—even if it’s perfectly fine; his mind racing with thoughts so fast that he can’t complete a task without jumping to start the next. It’s a simple yet effective manifestation of the helplessness brought on by disease and caregiving. Unfortunately for Livingston’s character and many living this experience, no matter how hard you try to fix everything, some things are beyond repair and certainly out of your control.
What does it mean to have control? It’s one of the central questions at the center of the film, especially for Corinne as she moves through her radiation treatments, which ultimately can’t prevent her mental and physical deterioration. A’zion expertly portrays her battle with accepting help from Jane and clinging to her sense of autonomy. It’s unrealistic to expect someone so highly independent to give away her decision-making power readily. Corinne smartly reminds her father when he originally suggests taking her back home to Phoenix for treatments, “I’m 24 years old, I’m not 12.”
When Corinne pushes to continue life as it was pre-cancer, she’s immediately met by Jane trying to rein her in and redirect her energy toward healing. It creates this beautifully accurate tension between the friends as their designated roles start to shift in a way they’re not accustomed to. There can be a huge shift in the dynamics and power structure of a relationship when someone becomes a caregiver. They’re now forced to balance being who they were in the relationship—in this case a friend—with stepping into the position of guardian, and that’s a tight rope to balance.
While both women try to retain a sense of normalcy by continuing cakebarring with friends (who barely talk and only laugh) and Jane finds relief from her caregiving duties in her budding relationship with Owen (Rish Shah), the film could have done without so many dedicated scenes. Though they all provide much-needed levity, it’s the friendship and chemistry between the two leads that gives the film a sense of stability. The quiet moments shared between Jane and Corinne are the most thoughtful throughout. As an audience, we see this in the way Jane meticulously counts Corinne’s pills for the coming weeks on the bathroom floor while a naked Corinne watches from the bathtub. In the way Jane keeps her pen poised right above her filled notebook and has Corinne’s parents on FaceTime during doctor’s appointments. In the way Jane dips a sponge into water before placing it in Corinne’s mouth, hoping to help her find some relief.
“Sitting in Bars With Cake” captures a clear snapshot of what a young caregiver’s life looks like, with the ceaseless scramble between work and ever-shifting treatments, feelings of mistrust toward doctors, and agony over whether what you’re doing is right or will even make a difference in the end. Although Shahidi’s character is set up as the true lead and she plays Jane earnestly, A’zion’s performance creates the heartbeat of the film. Had it spent more time focusing on Jane alone, struggling to maneuver through the overwhelming responsibility of shepherding someone back to health, the film would have truly stuck the landing.
It’s easy to lose yourself in caregiving, especially when there is no limit to the lengths you’ll go in the hope of saving someone you love. But at the end of the day, we all have to find ways to carry on the best we can, whether still caregiving or not. Luckily for Jane, there’s always some solace in a slice of cake.