(500) Days of Summer: A Love Letter to a Not-Love-Story

500-days-of-summerDear Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Marc Webb, Eric Steelberg, the producers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, and everyone else involved in making the movie (500) Days of Summer,

I’ve been subconsciously writing this letter for four months, since I first saw your movie at SXSW. I wrote on this site about my screening experience, but looking back, my post seems flippant and doesn’t indicate the depth to which your story delighted me. My husband wasn’t with me at the SXSW screening, which was unfortunate, because as soon as the credits rolled, I knew he would see himself on that screen. (As will many, many men my age.) Last night, I took him to see the movie at another screening in town.

I loved the movie again, maybe even more this time. You have created a masterful film that captures countless desperately honest moments. It was a visceral pleasure to watch. And I want to articulate some of the reasons why it has touched me so significantly.

I’ll cut here so I can spill lots of spoilers below. (Crucial Minutiae readers, if you’re going to see this movie, bookmark this post and come back once you’ve seen it. I don’t want to ruin your viewing experience.)

Since seeing (500) Days of Summer in March, I’ve been thinking about all the ways this movie satisfies me. I consider myself a feminist, anti-racist ally, and a dreamer, so it’s easy for movies to disappoint me. I’ve seen enough vapid female characters who exist solely to be immolated (literally) on the altar of Hero to last me ten lifetimes.

But just because I want to see more movies made with compelling female leads doesn’t mean every movie has to be about a woman. I love movies about men, especially men like the ones I know: brash, sensitive, passionate, emotional, hilarious men.

I won’t claim that you created a universal love story for my generation. But for my generation and my socio-economic group? You nailed it. Gordon-Levitt drunkenly singing the Pixies at karaoke? Playing pretend at IKEA as a courtship ritual? Regina Spektor and Feist? The “PENIS!” game? Incredible. Spot on.

Every one of my guy friends has lived through a Summer in their lives; some have lived through several. Those memories (nearly ten years old) are still so vivid that my husband pulled his shirt over his head during the wedding scene, embarrassed to see his guts strung out on the screen for everyone to see.

summerWhat rocks me to my core, and has resonated with me since March, is the way you honored Summer’s character so beautifully. This credit surely rests with the writers and the director, and with Deschanel for embodying this role. I’m grateful for the deft way that you turned the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype on its head, where it belongs.

Oh sure, Summer is blue-eyed beautiful, quirky, free-spirited. But she’s also real, consistent, honest, and complex. She’s a hearty enough character that I’m sure, in some mirror universe, there’s a movie that treats her as the star, and tells a very different story than this one. She is seen, yes, but she also sees. She has her own perspective; she resists flattening into two dimensions.

Your movie acknowledges the existence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype and turns it on its head, revealing that the movie isn’t about Summer at all. With the brilliant (and close-to-the-bone) “I love” and “I hate” montages, you make it clear to the audience that it’s not Summer who drags this poor fellow through a heartsick landscape — it’s Tom himself.

You don’t lie to the audience. All those movies about Manic Pixie Dream Girl aren’t about those women, either, but the filmmakers try to lie to us and wrap her up in mystery, hair dye, and pratfalls, proving to us that yes, she really is that magical! Look, she really is interesting, and not just a catalyst that spurs our hero to self-develop and mature!

But you cut the bullshit early on. From the beginning, Summer tells us that she has her own desires, pain, hesitations, and humanity. She’s not sure about this man and this relationship. She does not lie down and obey the rules of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She has her own identity. We don’t see all of it in this movie, but that’s okay; it’s Tom’s story. There are enough moments that deepen her character far beyond a caricature, that give her dignity and her own private life that’s not sliced open for our hero to feast upon only for his development.

An exquisite case in point: The Graduate scene, where she weeps, without explanation, at the film’s ending.

In the car on the way home, Chris and I talked about that scene and realized we both had entirely different interpretations of why she was crying. He thought it was because she suddenly saw that her relationship with Tom felt like that moment in The Graduate. I thought it was because of something else entirely. Maybe it was about her parents’ divorce, or something else in her inner life. But I know that her tears had nothing to do with him at all.

How am I so sure? Because I’ve been there before. Just as Tom’s drama isn’t about Summer, Summer’s drama isn’t about Tom. Who can claim that they haven’t been in a relationship just like that? Kudos to you for making a relationship movie in which a woman can cry in the presence of a man because of something that is none of his business, is not for his consumption, and will never be explained. That’s real, gritty, terribly true life and love.

In their final scene together, there is no neat ribbon wrapped on the lessons Tom learned from having her in his life. In fact, in a parting gift to the audience, Summer speaks the truth about her now husband that too many of us have been cowards to say: “I just woke up one day and I knew…Something I was never sure about with you.” Incredible. This is no manic pixie. This is a real woman.

tom500daysAnd she shares the screen with a real man. Yes, it’s painfully fun to watch Tom thrust his agency into Summer’s lap for much of the movie — last night, a woman behind me clicked her tongue and whispered, “Oh, the poor baby,” during the brutal and true Expectations/Reality scene (so elegantly shot by Eric Steelberg.) But Tom doesn’t give away his power permanently. Ultimately, it’s not about Summer. It’s about him, his own lack of action in his life, and the movie never tries to tell us otherwise. He reminds me of the men I know and love, who are flawed, charming, authentic human beings doing their best to be good men. How refreshing.

~ ~ ~

I hope that each one of you will keep pressing the edges of what’s possible between human beings on screen. I’m so grateful that you loaned your talents to this movie. I hope it does very well at the box office. I’ll be recommending it to all of my friends. Thank you again, filmmaking team, for creating something so delicious, charming, and true.

Warmly,
Jennifer

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Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.

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13 Comments

Filed under Beauty in a Wicked World, Gender, Movies, Music, Pop Culture, Random, Relationships, Writing

13 responses to “(500) Days of Summer: A Love Letter to a Not-Love-Story

  1. havent seen it; will come back later.

  2. Saw this last night. SO GOOD.
    Thanks for writing this great letter and articulating your thoughts to share with us. Brava!

  3. Thanks, Jackie, for your comment! I’m glad you liked the movie, too. I’ve started seeing commercials for it on TV, so I’m hopeful that it will do really well at the box office. Let this be a message to Hollywood about what kind of characters we like to see on screen!

  4. She has her own identity.

    Then why don’t I know what it is. Moreover, why doesn’t Tom care what it is?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Bianca! You ask a good question; I spend 90% of my movie-watching hours asking the same thing. You’re right — we don’t see her identity much in this movie. (Like I said in my post, though, I think there are several powerful moments where it’s made clear that she does have her own rich, inner life.)

    The reason this worked for me is because this movie is about a very specific kind of relationship, one that most people have been in at some point: where we don’t *really* know or want to know the other person’s identity. Where we fall in love with the *idea* of someone, even to the point of ignoring the information that they give us repeatedly(ie. “I don’t want to have kids,” or “I’m not ready for a relationship,” etc.).

    Tom doesn’t care about her identity because he’s in love with the *idea* of Summer, of that all-quenching love that he dreamed about as a kid. The filmmakers made that very clear — this isn’t a movie about Summer because Tom isn’t really *seeing* Summer at all.

    They’re up front about that from the beginning. This movie said it up front: “It’s a movie about boy meets girl” (not girl meets boy), and “this is not a love story.” It wasn’t one of those movies where you’re given a barely-sketched female character and then told that this is a love story about two people.

    I’m impressed that a mostly male team of creators was able to fess up to a real male experience of heartbreak (self-created) and idealization of a seemingly magical woman (who’s actually just a real, complex person).

  6. You’re welcome for the comment, Jennifer! 🙂

  7. mary

    your review is wonderful! this is such a good movie! and the quote that stuck with me was the exact one you quoted. “I just woke up one day and I knew…Something I was never sure about with you.”
    she’s a real woman, she reminds me of myself.

  8. Such a great review! Bookmarking it!

    I think the most powerful part of the movie was when they split the screen between reality and expectation. This happens so much in real life when our expectations and reality doesn’t sync.

    I would like also to point out that a lot of hopeless romantics go into this perfect girl mentality where they try to be perfect for the girl rather than be themselves.

    “where we don’t *really* know or want to know the other person’s identity.” Thank you for pointing that out! I confess i am victim to a lot of these.

    Thanks!

  9. johanna

    saw the movie and was great ! i completely agree with Jennifer.

  10. Anthony

    Haha, great post..Thanks man.

  11. T

    I haven’t seen the end of this film and i will not,cos the EXACT same thing happened to me,she told me that she didnt want to see me no more.I gotta find out what happens in my life.Summer(Zooey) is just the girl i was with.

  12. Alex

    Nice post and especially nice job of focusing on “The Graduate” scene – mostly, missed by the professional reviews, but this is the scene in the film that most deeply moved me. I agree with you completely – Summer is crying for reasons having nothing to do with Tom. That she doesn’t explain to him why she is so affected is a signal to us that the relationship is over, and this is why in part the scene is so pivotal. There is nothing quite so painful in a relationship as learning you have lost the ability to connect emotionally with someone you once could, especially when she/he is in pain. This is a brilliant bit of character development that I don’t think I’ve seen before in quite this way in a film.

    Another part that spoke to me was the bar scene, when Tom punches the jerk out, and to his surprise, finds that this has horrified Summer. I, as no doubt many others, had nearly identical experiences as a younger man and long ago learned that “real” women (unlike the ones we’ve concocted in our heads) do not respond favorably to displays of violence that are purportedly for them, but almost never really are. I think this is another really nice touch of filmmaking that gives us a clue as to some of the ways in which Summer figures out that Tom is not quite the right guy for her.