Palm Springs: Groundhog Day Returns to its Roots

One of the most talked about comedies of 2020 was Palm Springs, a film that debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was quickly bought up by Hulu, where it premiered mid-year. The film is written by Andy Siara and stars Cristin Milioti as Sarah and Andy Samberg as Nyles. It recently just landed a couple Golden Globe nominations as well.

While the movie couldn’t find the discuss at the box office it deserved, thanks to the pandemic, it was one of the most consistently hyped movies all year long. The time loop premise was incredibly fitting for a year with people in quarantine. What’s great about how Siara uses the premise is that he brings it back to the romantic comedy roots that it had in Groundhog Day, though I’d argue Samberg and Milioti are a pair that make a lot more sense than Bill Murray and Andie McDowell (this is personal preference more than anything else).

Both Nyles and Sarah have full character arcs that are completely unique to their own histories, but what makes this film really interesting, is the reveal midway that Sarah has actually done some damage. It’s surprising and forces you to re-watch all the scenes before to understand Sarah’s state of mind in a different way.

For years, television shows have been using this premise to fuel an episode, but because it’s only a singular chapter in a larger story, the characters don’t get to fully dive into their psychoses the way that film futures do. Like in the Xena breakdown. She is grateful for her friends and to be out of the loop at the end, but she wasn’t lacking in gratitude at the start. If anything, Gabrielle was towards Joxer. And there are a lot of shows that have used this conceit, to the point where it feels expected (particularly genre shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural).

What’s different about this structure than others (no matter the format), is that there are two protagonists from the outset. While there was probably a way to tell the storylines together after they diverge in the second half, instead the story splits and it’s more effective both for the arcs and the stakes. Watching Nyles’ spirit plummet after he loses Sarah before finding out what happened to Sarah allows the audience to think he’s genuinely going to be stuck. And telling Sarah’s story second, is both entertaining as well as good way to lead the audience to believe that she’s changed in a way that won’t allow Nyles back into her life. It’s the kind of storytelling you probably wouldn’t get if the film was made by a major studio instead of an independent company like Neon.

After years of seeing either television versions or made-for-TV/straight-to-DVD versions of the premise that never dove into the psychological impact and growth that comes with living and endless life, this film felt fresh, fun, and original, even though we all know what’s going to happen.

Before we get to the breakdown, here are the other posts in this series:

Xena: Warrior Princess, “Been There, Done That”
The Mindy Project, “Hot Mess Time Machine”
Edge of Tomorrow

The Breakdown

Protagonist(s): Nyles / Sarah
Want: To get out of the loop
Need: Numb from loneliness and no trust (Nyles), Selfish (Sarah)

Antagonist: Eachother and Roy
Extra Antagonist: The loop

Pre-Existing Life: Nyles wakes up after an earthquake and goes through a repeated loop of his miserable relationship with his girlfriend Misty. Sarah is miserable as the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding as she drinks. She’s not ready to give a speech when called upon and Nyles jumps in to save her. They go out into the desert to sleep together but are interrupted by Roy, who fires arrows at Nyles. Sarah follows Nyles into a mysterious cave and down a mystical portal.

Inciting Incident: Sarah wakes up with the day reset. In taking her anger out on Nyles, she accidentally cracks her sister’s teeth and ruins the whole day. Sarah spends driving home and trying to never fall asleep so the day can’t reset.

Plot Push / First Act Decision: After a suicide attempt, Nyles sits Sarah down and explains the rules of the world and how Roy ended up there thanks to Nyles. She decides to be as selfless as possible, sharing a mysterious secret with her sister in the middle of the wedding that releases guilt for Sarah but ruins the wedding. When the day repeats, Sarah decides to follow Nyles’ lead and simply learn to enjoy the loop and kill time.

Progress: Nyles shows Sarah his “safehouse” and they spend a huge sequence embracing life and pranking the world. They both wake up with smiles on their faces throughout the montage as they embrace every moment together.

Reversal: They do shrooms in the desert and Nyles tells of how he’s only concerned with the present moment while Sarah believes to connect with someone you have to go deeper and she tells him a personal story. Nyles can’t rise to the challenge to open up.

Midpoint: They sleep together. They both wake up the next morning happy about what happened the night before, but Sarah’s happiness is interrupted by her future-brother-in-law in a shower and it’s revealed that they slept together the night before his wedding. Sarah is in shock with Nyles, who is confused and thinks she regrets sleeping with him.

Reversal #2: They go for a drive and Sarah is visibly shaken. They’re hunted down by Roy, disguised as a cop, and Sarah runs him over. This causes a fight between Nyles and Sarah, with Nyles revealing that he lied and had slept with Sarah when he was in the loop and she wasn’t. To get away from him she steps in front of a semi-truck. The next morning, Nyles can’t find Sarah.

Nyles’s False Climax / Low Point: Nyles searches for Sarah and tries to figure out where she slept the night before. He finds out that Sarah slept with her brother-in-law and announces it at the wedding. He realizes that he’s in love with her but he can’t find and goes back to a depression worse than what he started with in the beginning. Nyles goes to visit Roy who gives him a pep talk.

Sarah’s False Climax / Low Point: Sarah wakes up after killing herself and scolds the brother-in-law for cheating with her. Then spends countless mornings studying quantum physics and theory to figure out how to get out of the loop. She figures it out she thinks. Sarah wakes Nyles and he tells her he wants them to give a relationship another shot. She quickly moves past that tells him about the theory and that he should come with her. He is scared to go and lose her. She doesn’t want to stay in the loop.

Plot Push / Third Act Decision: Sarah goes to the wedding and gives a great speech. At the bar, Nyles thinks of Sarah and goes after her. He blows a tire and decides to go after her.

Climax: Nyles gets to the cave just in time. he proves how well he knows her and loves her. He’ll go in the cave, he just doesn’t want to be without her. She’s down for love. They go into the cave. They blow the cave as they kiss.

Resolution: They’re in the safehouse pool, chilling… the owners finally come home and kick them out. Time has moved.

Epilogue: Roy shows up at the wedding and says hi to Nyles. Nyles doesn’t recognize him. He’s out of the loop and Roy isn’t.

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