‘I Love You More’ explores love, longing and self discovery

Don Shala and Irena Aliu in ‘I Love You More.’
Don Shala and Irena Aliu in ‘I Love You More.’

The tender drama “I Love You More,” which is currently available on VOD, opens in “Somewhere in Kosovo” as Ben (Don Shala) comes out to his best friend Linda (Zana Berisha). He shows her a photo of Leo, a boy he has feelings for. Ben has never met Leo, who lives in Germany, but the only thing he wants — other than to go live in America, where there is freedom — is to meet Leo.

This scene unfolds before the opening credits, at which point nonbinary writer/director Erblin Nushi includes a statement that reads, “I tell personal stories because they can inspire people who see themselves in them.” This is admirable, and there are surely some teenagers (and adults) who will appreciate “I Love You More,” but much of this slow, slight drama can be trying.

It is not just that Ben is a lovesick teenager with only one thing on his mind. His infatuation with Leo puts everyone’s life on hold until he can be with him because he refuses to go with his family to live in America until he meets Leo. This selfish ultimatum feels flimsy, but Ben’s long-suffering mother, Nora (Irena Aliu), concedes after she realizes her son is gay. Ben’s father, Bashkim (Luan Jaha), however, is less indulgent, and he is angry that his son is delaying the family’s departure.

“I Love You More” does not generate much sympathy as Ben behaves petulantly. His every act is calculated, including a visit to his grandmother (Melihate Qena), so he can secretly call Leo because his phone is out of minutes again.

Ben may have known Leo for a year online, but from what the film shows, they mostly send messages on the computer and talk intermittently. Their discussions consist of little more than what they may do to each other if and when they finally meet face to face. Is Ben being catfished? That is not out of the realm of possibilities, and it would spoil “I Love You More” to reveal if Ben and Leo meet in person because most of the dramatic tension stems from this single plot point. But the film sets the character up for heartbreak, which makes it agonizing to watch.

Moreover, Nushi shoots this turgid drama in long takes that maximize Ben’s yearning; the film is too slow. The pangs of first love are expressed during a lovely scene between Ben and his mother where she understands his desires. But the pregnant pauses between their every exchange — as when Mom agrees to change the tickets to America, and Ben responds with, “Really?” — are excruciating.

Nushi also includes a series of dreams Ben has where he imagines Leo hooking up with another guy. This jealousy is impactful because Ben has an obsessive nature; he wants his absolute loyalty towards Leo to be reciprocated. Since viewers do not have an image of Leo, it is unclear who is kissing and being kissed in these scenes, which adds to the film’s intrigue. An episode where Ben imagines going to a party plays up Ben’s longing and anxiety well. The film could have used more interesting sequences like this one.

But “I Love You More” spends most of its time on Ben staring out into space and mooning over Leo, which can be tiresome. Ben’s parents may not be the only ones hoping this soppy teen will find something else to do. Ben doesn’t want to go to the pool with Linda, or help his mother with her seamstress work, or even pack for America. He just mopes around waiting for the phone to ring and for Leo to arrange a date and time and place to meet. It is hardly a spoiler to say that when Leo does, things do not go as planned.

As exasperating as the film can be, there is a marvelous performance by Irena Aliu as Nora. She gets all the best scenes, especially when she expresses her anger at her husband for being so pigheaded. In one terrific moment, she opens her car door, ready to jump out because of her husband’s lack of understanding about Ben’s sexuality. Another strong scene has her reminding her husband that they hid their relationship as her family didn’t accept him. Aliu is forceful where Shala is mostly passive as Ben.

“I Love You More” is really a love story not between Ben and Leo, but between Ben and his mother. She supports him selflessly and unconditionally, which is what gives the film its emotional power. Even if viewers object to Nora mollycoddling her son, her whole life has been sacrificing herself. She may treat him with kid gloves, but Nora also slaps Ben in one scene, venting her frustration.

Nushi dedicates their film to their mother, father and siblings, which is appropriate. “I Love You More” is sure to engender highly personal reactions from viewers.

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