500 Days of Summer – Review

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Somewhere between the release of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno it became apparent that the so-called “indie” film had become a genre of its own, complete with stock characters and cliches. Cute, sassy youngster played by an actress talented beyond her years? Check. Hip soundtrack full of “indie” music? Check. Awkward, misunderstood young man? Check. Occasional unconventional shots that will convince teen-agers and college students that the film is profound? Check. Slightly (but only slightly) rough around the edges production values? Check. Lots of irony? Check. Constant reminders that this isn’t a Holllywood movie? Check. And there you have it – an “indie” film!

And there we have it – 500 Days of Summer.

Which was unfortunate because, underneath the layers of indie film cliches was a potentially interesting movie. Since I imagine most people already know the basics of the plot, I won’t go into to it too much, but, in a nutshell, Tom Hansen (Jason Gordon-Levitt) gets in a sort-of relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) (is “Finn” a clever reference to Huckleberry Finn? How clever! How subtle! How “indie”). The problem is she’s not ready for a relationship so, eventually, they break up and he has to get over it. All of this, of course, takes 500 days.

This film is wildly unconventional in part because it doesn’t tell the story chronologically (chronological narratives are sooooooo Hollywood). It’s also unconventional because they don’t end up together in the end. In fact, not only do they not end up together in the end, but the movie doesn’t even keep us in suspense about it, nor does it follow the Casablanca model of making us lament their final break-up (or so I’ve been told, I’ve never seen Casablanca because I hate movies). Clearly, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. And, just in case we don’t realize this and thus don’t give the film all of its due “indie” cred, the opening voice-over tells us that this is not a love story, which is good because the hip “indie” music that played during the opening credits raised my hopes – I’m feeling more subversive already.

The rest of the film continues down this “indie” road (which I think was also a title of a song on the soundtrack). Tom initially courts Summer via their shared love of The Smiths (did I mention that the film has a hip soundtrack?). When they eventually have sex Tom ends up doing a choreographed dance number down the street (wow, what filmic irony). When he’s mired in depression following the break-up he gets sage advice from his sassy, wise-cracking little sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz who has acting talent way beyond her years). Throw in cut-aways in which the scene slowly fades into a pencil sketch and the occasional black and white shot in which we briefly see the characters as children and there you have it: an indie masterpiece.

Now to be fair, one of the indie cliches in this film actually does work: the non-choronological story telling. Since we see the break-up before we see Tom and Summer get together, the film never asks us to invest in their relationship. As a result, this film isn’t about the break-up but is about the process of a relationship; it’s an exploration of the struggles that go into trying to make a relationship work, and the heartbreak that follows when a relationship comes so close to working out, but somehow, for some reason, doesn’t.

And when the film stays focused on exploring these emotions, it actually works pretty well. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel have great chemistry and do a good job of showing the audience just how much their characters seem to truly enjoy each other’s company. Summer never comes across as a bitch, nor does Tom come across as pathetic. Instead, they both come across as very sincere and genuine portraits of two people who are almost, but not quite, a perfect match.

And this is the tragedy of this film. As an exploration of the challenges that accompany relationships – the struggles to truly communicate, the heart-break and guilt of a break up, the difficulties of letting go – this film is really quite moving and if that had remained the focus I might have actually liked it. But every time the film executed a superbly sincere moment, it undid itself with a pastel painting of a tree and a number scrolling back and forth to tell us which day we were on, or a slightly scratchy voiced folk singer strumming a guitar would float through the theater’s speakers to remind us just how “cool” and “hip” this movie really was, or the screen would split into concurrent scenes of what Tom hopes will happen when he sees Summer after their break-up and what actually happens. In other words, every time the film became interesting it felt the need to stop and remind us how interesting it was.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the film is supposed to leave us feeling like Tom – and the movie itself is our Summer. After all, he clearly saw a great deal of potential in her, enjoyed the genuine moments that they spent together, and was perpetually frustrated that just when their relationship seemed most sincere she would hide beneath her sarcasm and cleverness. I felt the same way about this film and, in the end I, like Tom, was ready to be done with it and move on.

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