Long Take: Unraveling the Psychosexual Trauma of It Follows

Viewed March 28, 2015

It Follows movie posterI had never heard of the indie horror film It Follows until I spotted its poster hanging in the hallway of a local art-house cinema here in Kansas City, announcing its imminent showcase. Using familiar iconography of American teenage rebellion, the minimalist printed advertisement poses two attractive young people in the midst of a backseat tryst in a classic car parked in the middle of the woods. A smoky footlight from within illuminates the interior of the car parked on this Lovers’ Lane. Without a tagline, the poster for It Follows relies on a quote from The Dissolve to entice spectators: “One of the Most Striking American Horror Films in Years,” which isn’t quite the same as saying it is the most striking American horror film in years. However, the beguiling film title is the viewer’s most helpful guide to interpreting the poster scene (and, by extension, the film it represents): what is “It?” Could “It” be me, as I look at this intimate moment between two people? The voyeuristic film poster perfectly encapsulates the dueling yet complementary senses of dread and yearning that the 2014 film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, instills in the audience.

Given the film’s strong word-of-mouth marketing campaign and sizable box office gross, distributors RADiUS-TWC scrapped plans to release the film via video-on-demand and instead rushed it to more theaters around the country. Even though I routinely eschew horror films (unless there are vampires; don’t ask why!), I determined that I had better see this thing, to judge for myself how “striking” it is. I couldn’t see It Follows at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport now; when the film’s distribution widened ahead of the theater’s advertised opening day, Tivoli put on alternate programming instead. Wishing video-on-demand was still an option, I entered into an agreement at an AMC multiplex, voluntarily giving away control, allowing myself to be scared out of my mind. After all, if New York film critic and self-proclaimed “horror-movie freak” David Edelstein could barely handle It Follows, how was I ever going to walk away un-traumatized? Apparently, the film had frightened him so much that he left with a “so-upset-I-feel-sick kind of amorphous dread.” Yikes.

And here is where I must insert my common refrain: there be spoilers ahead. But if you are like me and avoid torture porn, slasher movies, and possession flicks, then you should know—if you’re even considering seeing It Follows—that the film is not scary! That’s right: to my pleasant surprise, It Follows isn’t scary in the least. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any jump scares (there are a few) or that the plotting doesn’t create and alleviate some violent tension. The sole “hideously gory image” that Edelstein can’t wipe from his memory arrives early, but it is no more traumatizing to look at than any of the so-called elegant murderous tableaux featured on the network drama Hannibal. (I admit: I watch that, but never before or after eating and only during daylight hours.)

By now, you probably know the premise of It Follows. A pretty but nice girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), has sex with a quiet but nice boy, Hugh (Jake Weary). Afterwards, he chloroforms her face, and she wakes up in her underwear, bound in a wheelchair. In an abandoned parking garage somewhere in the suburbs of Detroit, Hugh explains to her that, through intercourse, he has just passed a “thing” onto her, a monster that only she can see and that will take different forms, usually people she knows and loves. It will never stop haunting her, Hugh warns Jay (and by extension, the audience). It will follow her everywhere on foot, but she mustn’t let it kill her. If she succumbs to its evil force, then it will come after him.

Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Hugh (Jake Weary) is on the lookout for what follows, just after sexually transmitting the haunting onto Jay (Maika Monroe). Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

In the introduction to the interview she conducted with David Robert Mitchell, Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi hints at the parallels that Jay’s newfound diagnosis shares with venereal disease (prognosis: not good!). She writes, “Jay’s sexually transmitted haunting evokes the film’s theme of the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” (emphasis mine). In other words, despite coming of age well after the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the subsequent “safe sex” movement of the 1990s, teenagers today approach sex with some trepidation regarding infection. But in the film, the teenagers don’t so much internalize the idea that intercourse is more than just physically and emotionally laying yourself bare. Instead, sex is a means of, to borrow Nastasi’s words, “surrendering a part of yourself to someone else” whose sexual history weighs heavily on your own. The “interconnectivity” inherent in the sexual act renders Jay vulnerable to the aftereffects of one of Hugh’s earlier assignations and winds up controlling her destiny. Despite the support that she receives from her sister and friends, the visions of stalkers are too much for Jay to bear, and the burden of having to pass on this “sexually transmitted haunting” constitutes not only cruel and unusual punishment for all involved but also her only means of escape from imminent death.

But what does it all add up to? While Mitchell is open to various interpretations of what It Follows means, in talking with Nastasi, he resolutely denies that viewers should walk out of the theater believing that Jay’s “sexually transmitted haunting,” to use that phrase again, is a result of her sexuality. He also disagrees with the notion that the film purports a “sex-negative” message, specifically about women losing something during the act and that they should therefore be afraid of sex. Jay is not being punished for sleeping with someone, and casual sex isn’t something to fear. Watching the movie, I purposefully looked beyond the STI connection and about midway through decided that It Follows is about the collision of the real and the imaginary and how convincing someone of your truth binds you both together. I thought that what Jay suffers from isn’t a real physical threat but rather the psychological torment that Hugh first puts into her head. Can she trust him? Is this “thing” real? Will anyone believe that she is not crazy?

Young adults commonly struggle to make sense of the world and their place within it. What do I want to be when I grow up? Will my best friend and I always be close? How can I be cool? I don’t want to be anything like my parents! One of the elements I like best about It Follows is the companionship that Jay enjoys with Kelly (Jay’s sister, played by Lili Sepe), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist). Eventually, a classmate and former high school paramour, played by a young Johnny Depp lookalike named Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins the crew. They all trust that Jay is seeing some pretty disturbing visions and that she isn’t crazy. Their teenage clique demonstrates that even if they cannot see or identify with the viral bullying that Jay endures, they can relate to it and desire to put a stop to it. In this way, It Follows turns the average teenager’s general desire to fit in (and the complementary fear of rejection) on its head. Jay’s supernatural condition infects everyone around her, thereby producing a cohesive social unit that doesn’t label her an outcast or social pariah. This is the silver lining to “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety,” as Nastasi labels the film’s overarching theme. In the end, the group relies on Jay’s vision to extinguish the monster once and for all.

In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he'd given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
In trying to locate Hugh and learn more of his secrets, Jay and her friends snoop around an abandoned house that he’d given her as his address. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It Follows does showcase the interplay between Jay’s supernatural condition and the awkwardness of teenagehood in some poignant ways. Paul is in love with Jay, his best friend’s older sister. Years ago, they shared each other’s first kiss. When Paul finds out that Jay slept with Greg in order to pass on the haunting, he behaves somewhat like a petulant child. Why Greg? Paul wants to know. Because Jay thought that Greg could handle it. For days, Greg is unfazed, insisting that the monster has yet to visit him. Its absence leads him to believe that it is all in Jay’s mind. What happens next in the film rendered incorrect my observation about the slippage between what is real and what is imagined. One night, Jay watches a zombie-like stalker in the shape of Greg break into Greg’s house across the street. Jay realizes that her transmission, however successful, hasn’t freed her from the visions. So she runs across the street to warn him. Once in the house, it takes the form of Greg’s mother (Leisa Pulido), naked but for an untied silk robe, and pounds on Greg’s door. Jay yells for him to stay locked in his room. He doesn’t heed Jay’s warning, and for the first time the film audience catches a glimpse of what happens when the monster kills someone in the chain: it literally fucks the victim to death, their skin gelling together. That’s when it dawned on me that It Follows is simply about the fear of death—by incest.

In an interview with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, writer-director David Robert Mitchell discusses many of the film’s plot twists and turns. I think he’s being particularly cagey about why the monster takes the form of the victim’s loved ones, limiting his remarks to just the following: “So why did I make it the mom, other than just saying it was one of the more fucked-up things that I could think of? [Laughs.] It’s also that within the film, we’re sort of avoiding the influence of the adult world, and so I thought it was interesting to only enter into that space through the trope of the monster.” Without revealing much, this quote pinpoints exactly what the film is about: the anxiety over growing up and becoming an adult, and the film story uses incest as a metaphor for the teenagers to confront their own mortality, by becoming “one” with their parent.

Whereas my sister sees the teenagers’ mission to extinguish the monster on their own (that is, without adult supervision) as evidence of their self-sufficiency, I view it as an expression of the horror genre’s conventions. In these films, parents often don’t interact much with their teenagers—unless they are part of the problem. Just look at The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy 1973) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984), two seminal entries in the genre. In the former, orgiastic villagers use their children to lure a virginal fool to their Hebridean island in order to sacrifice him as part of their pagan May Day celebration. The titular nightmare(s) in the latter film also refer to a slippage between the real and the imaginary, and the adults are similarly of little use to solve the teens’ horrific ordeal. The adults’ attempt to murder Freddy Krueger, who now stalks the teens’ dreams, is the reason for their children’s torment today. It Follows even recalls the work of cult director David Lynch, specifically Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Writing for Slate, and without elaborating on the specifics, Mark Binelli claims that “Mitchell is clearly indebted to Blue Velvet,” probably because teenagers also investigate the psychosexual crimes of the adults in that voyeuristic picture. The highly influential Twin Peaks presents a more apt comparison; Leland Palmer killed his daughter but claims to have been possessed throughout his life by a demon, which led him to rape and murder her. The “influence of the adult world,” to use Mitchell’s phrase, is certainly something to avoid in these films and TV series, but since we only catch glimpses of the adults in It Follows, what makes them so sinister that copulation with your parent is deadly?

If the hallmark of teenage rebellion is not wanting to be anything like your parents, then, according to Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytical theory, the Oedipal and Electra complexes should be the death of you. It Follows realizes this destiny for those who contract the sexually transmitted haunting, but Mitchell goes one step further. Rather than merely promoting the fear of incest as the victim’s undoing, he combines these metaphors for psychosexual conflict with another Freudian theory: the interplay between the sexual and death instincts. While the former drives the individual to seek (sexual) pleasure and live life to the fullest, the latter binds the individual in a series of repetitious traumas that subconsciously influence the individual to seek solace in the space before his or her birth. In other words, life is about negotiating the libido and the death drive, which underpins the unconscious desire of the individual to cease to exist. In It Follows, the sexually transmitted haunting forces the infected to face his or her fear of death through violent confrontation with a monster that resembles the literal beginning of the victim’s being. For example, Greg’s pursuit of pleasure (his sexual instinct or libido) ends as his death drive brings him back to the place before he existed, in his mother’s loins. If the chain of victims haunted by the monster represents a series of repeated traumas, then the monster’s killing one victim and then going after another illustrates our inability to escape the death drive.

In the film's prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS/TWC.
In the film’s prologue, Annie (Bailey Spry) is on the run from the monster in her house. Her unseen dad (Loren Bass) seems somehow involved in her psychosexual trauma. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Evidence that It Follows is an exploration of (Neo-)Freudian psychoanalytical theory abounds throughout the picture. In fact, one of the most ominous aspects of the film’s prologue, shot in an extended long take, foreshadows what is to come. A young woman named Annie (Bailey Spry) runs out of her house dressed in a rather grown-up lingerie ensemble and high heels. Her father (Loren Bass) calls out to her as she circles around the stationary camera several times, afraid of whatever is in the house. The audience never sees what haunts her, so her father is the sole person (or even thing) that we can associate with the house. If you didn’t know the premise of the film, you might think that there is a history of sexual abuse between Annie and her father. She eventually gets into a car and drives far away to a secluded lakefront. She calls home and, fearing that the monster will soon reach her, insists that she loves her dad. Although we do not know who or what defiled and contorted Annie’s body (this is the gory image critic David Edelstein couldn’t erase from his memory), I think it is safe to assume that the monster probably took the form of her father in that unseen moment.

Jay's first vision appears while she's in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay’s first vision appears while she’s in the middle of a class at a community college. Find below the reverse shot of what Jay sees. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Once Jay contracts the haunting, the fear of sexual misconduct with her loved ones becomes more obvious. In conversation with Kyle Buchanan, Mitchell comments on the first form that Jay’s iteration of the monster takes: “And I think what you’re saying is true, it’s about the contrast of this [old] woman in its location [the campus of Jay’s community college]. Instantly, you realize that something is not quite right. And people are not paying attention to her, although in any other situation, they would be.” I recognized the old woman in her nightgown as the old woman from a photograph on the wall that Jay studies earlier in the film. The implication is that this woman is Jay’s grandmother. When Mitchell refers in the same interview to his method of keeping a distance between what the protagonists see from their perspective on the ground and what may be haunting Jay from any other vantage point, I believe he is referring specifically to the moment when Jay sees an old naked man standing atop her roof. Even though Mitchell and co. didn’t put on a longer lens to capture the menace’s visage in more detail, I still recognized that he is probably Jay’s grandfather, from the same photo.

The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
The reverse shot captures the first vision Jay has, while in class at a community college. The old woman, I argue, is her dead grandmother. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Although the monster assumes more unfamiliar personages, including a young peeping tom from next door and an extraordinarily tall man (whom I couldn’t place), a majority of its reflections are familiar. When Jay and her friends track Hugh down and visit him at his real address, his mother answers the door, her wide smile in deep contrast to the emotionless face she had on while coming after Hugh (real name Jeff), completely naked, in the parking garage following his successful transmission of the haunting onto Jay. Furthermore, the violent climax at an indoor community pool not only resembles the end of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), it further illustrates my argument. The group (minus Greg, of course) plugs in various household appliances, hoping to use Jay to lure the monster into the pool so that they may electrocute it. Mitchell admits to Buchanan that the group’s plan is “the stupidest plan ever!” Paul has brought a gun and depends on Jay’s description of where it is in order to shoot it. Yara gets injured in the process, but it eventually falls into the pool, attempting to drown Jay. She gets away and watches as the pool fills up with blood. Crucially, however, throughout the whole scene the monster appears to Jay as her absent father, whom I also previously glimpsed in a family photograph. Besides wanting to keep these familiar connections as opaque as possible, I don’t understand why Jay, especially in this scene, never calls out whom it resembles. For that matter, after so many close calls, she never tells anyone whose appearance the monster adopts. Either I am completely off base as to why the monster threatens to kill the teenagers while in the form of their parents, or Mitchell is just one cagey guy.

Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He's no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.
Jay peers into the community pool to see if she and her friends successfully killed the monster. He’s no longer there. Image courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Despite the bloodbath, Jay and her friends are not out of the woods. Inexplicably, Jay sleeps with Paul. It Follows is not funny, but Paul’s asking Jay if she feels any different after they have sex cleverly corrupts the trope of (teenage) virginity. Next we see Paul troll for a prostitute. Meanwhile, Jay curls up on her bed in a familiar fetal position, her mother (Debbie Williams, whose face is never in focus—if it is even in the frame—throughout the film) stroking her naked back. This may be the most haunting image of It Follows. It demonstrates that the threat of death, expressed through her parent’s sexual menace, is ever near and ever present. The final shot of Jay and Paul, holding hands while walking down the street, may hint that the person following them in the distance is also haunting them. In this way, “the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety” is defeated: these friends have become lovers and can now face the monster/death together. Although the film ends on an ambiguous but still upbeat note (in spite of everything that has happened, anyway), the image of Jay’s mother suggestively touching her daughter is creepier and more foreboding than the couple’s maybe-stalker.


Below is the lyric video for “From the Night,” the first song off the 2014 album No One is Lost by Stars. The Canadian band’s dreamy soundscapes complement the electronic synth score by Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace), which borrows heavily from the horror-film themes of the 1970s and 80s, such as Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). More than that, the newest record by the prolific band, which I only recently got into thanks to a live studio-session they performed on the CBC radio show Q, thematically and stylistically dovetails with one of It Follows’ themes: the average teenager’s desire to fit in and have fun. The cover of the album, which you can glimpse in the video, showcases a similar youthful yearning for connection and social acceptance that It Follows deconstructs. Most notably, listen to the lyrics after the bridge (at the 3.40 mark in the video). They could be telling Jay and Paul’s story.

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Women Have Risen: Examining the Year’s Best Actress Nominees, Narrative Tropes, and the Human Experience

A few years ago, I published online an essay whose title encapsulated my frustration at the time with the apparent lack of compelling, universally humanistic film roles for women: “Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?” Inspired by a vision I had of a lone woman astronaut shuttling through space (Sally Ride had just died), I contemplated a future where women characters in film might “have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women,” mainly being a wife and/or mother. The potential I see in women film characters, and women in general, is the narrative ability to illuminate the human condition for everyone.

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony’s television broadcast, I habitually observe and reflect on the nominations. At this point, each of the four acting categories appears to offer no surprises when it will come time to announce the winners. Julianne Moore (Lead Actress, Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Supporting Actress, Boyhood), Eddie Redmayne (Lead Actor, The Theory of Everything), and J.K. Simmons (Supporting Actor, Whiplash) have routinely won acting trophies for their respective film roles while competing on the awards circuit this season. With the outcome of these contests all but a certainty, I recognize that the most competitive category is that of Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, and it collectively represents the fulfillment of my wish from over two years ago, with a few caveats. In other words, most performances in this category capture, for lack of a better turn of phrase, what it’s like to be human. If film is an art form that helps us make sense of our lives, we cannot take the woman’s experience for granted, as Academy voters have done. Of the five nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, only one top-lines a film that is not nominated for Best Picture: Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. However, only one nominated female lead performance appears in a Best Picture contender: The Theory of Everything, as if to say that women-centered films are not prestigious (read: worthy) or capable of addressing everyone.

Rather than run through the list of nominees alphabetically, I want to discuss them in the chronological order that I first encountered them. Maybe it’s the simple passage of time or the workings of an unreliable memory, but every performance seemed to be better than the last one I saw. Fair warning: in my analysis, I give away many plot details of each film.

Gone Girl movie posterAt the beginning of October, Gone Girl kicked off the season of awards-friendly motion pictures, and I remember thinking throughout my viewing of it that Rosamund Pike, the titular “girl,” deserves a nomination for her portrait of a bonafide psychopath. As Amy Dunne, the dissatisfied wife of Ben Affleck’s mysterious charmer Nick Dunne, Pike both fakes her own kidnapping (and possible murder) and then frames her husband for it. It isn’t until halfway through that the viewer discovers that Amy, the subject of a statewide search, is in fact alive and on the run. Having set as her mission the complete and humiliating obliteration of Nick’s character as well as his eventual imprisonment, Amy watches from afar (using the national media circus surrounding their small Missouri town) as the forged artifacts and clues that she doctored to point towards Nick’s guilt gradually fall into place. The most lethal part of her scheme (killing a man in supposed self-defense in order to fake her abduction) ultimately reunites husband and wife. In the media spotlight she has helped orchestrate and direct, Amy uses the public court of opinion to both absolve Nick of any crime that the American public previously found him guilty of committing and to imprison him in an emotionally, mentally, and physically abusive marriage.

A snapshot of Amy Dunne's fake journal. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
A snapshot of Amy Dunne’s fake journal in Gone Girl. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

While Gone Girl and Amy’s role in it do not exactly conform to fulfilling my desire to see women in films who are unattached, undefined by their relationships to men and/or children, the David Fincher-directed thriller, which author Gillian Flynn adapted from her bestselling novel of the same name, at least deconstructs the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Keeping Amy’s machinations hidden until halfway through the picture, her perspective only relayed through fake found journals, not only shifts perspectives on the couple’s lives (from Nick’s to Amy’s), it also produces one helluva denouement. Amy’s cold and clinical calculations upend our previous idea of her, whether as flirtatious (the memory of their meet-cute), sacrificial (a longtime cosmopolitan, she left New York for suburban Missouri when Nick’s mother became terminally ill), or even physically abused (her fake journal embellishes an altercation with Nick in order to vilify him). More than this, Amy presents a pathologically sociopathic and misandrous response to patriarchy, going to libelous and murderous extremes to pervert the idea of a traditional marriage. As the primary breadwinner upon their transplant to the Midwest, Amy strikes back at Nick for his philandering ways and emotional neglect so that when he finds himself trapped in this controlling and harmful marriage (to say, “loveless” would be an understatement), she is not defined by her relationship to him so much as he is defined by whatever she thinks or says about him. In this way, Gone Girl examines how relationships bind us and in this process, redefines the rules of attachment. The opening and closing scenes, wherein Nick strokes his wife’s hair and, through voiceover narration, muses about how we really don’t know what goes on in the mind of our chosen companion, index our struggles with loneliness and desire to be free.

The Theory of Everything movie posterA Best Picture contender, The Theory of Everything is ostensibly a handsome biopic of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Based upon Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of the thirty years she was married to him, Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking, the film is mostly focalized through her experience. While Eddie Redmayne receives almost unanimous praise for his physical transformation as Stephen, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1963 at age 21 and around the same time that he met fellow Cambridge student Jane, it is actually Felicity Jones as the scientist’s first wife who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film. The Theory of Everything doesn’t propose a film story about a woman uncharacterized by her relationship to a man and their children. Just the opposite, but it is worth discussing very briefly, to correct notions that the film is about a famous man and the people in his life. In fact, given the film’s source material, it is easy to argue that the film is about a woman and the famous man in her life. This does not mean that The Theory of Everything is a so-called “woman’s film,” but it is a family drama centered from the woman’s perspective.

In his review of the film, New York film critic David Edelstein writes that, “as the film’s focus drifts to [Jane], I found myself resenting the character—not for wanting more from her life, but for yanking the narrative away from by far the more fascinating figure.” I agree that the first part of the film focuses primarily on Stephen’s experience, combining his academic coming-of-age (meeting advisors’ expectations—or not—and choosing a dissertation topic) with his struggle to adjust to a rapidly degenerative disease as well as a nascent romance with Jane. She may have walked into his life at a party, but I argue that as soon as Jane determines that he should be a part of her life, she wrestles the picture away from him, and that gesture does make her both fascinating and compelling. I still cannot shake the image of the couple’s pronounced declaration of togetherness (it’s been used in the film’s marketing campaign, to boot) wherein they hold hands and joyously spin around. Significantly, it is Jane who initiates their little ball of energy, pulling Stephen into her orbit. Young and in love, Jane doesn’t realize the kind of life she commits herself to when she refuses to forget Stephen. For he far out-lives his life expectancy of two years, and as time marches on she becomes increasingly frustrated with her life. Taking care of Stephen and raising their children are two full-time jobs, and her own academic ambitions take a backseat to her husband’s. We witness the effect that choosing Stephen has on her life, and a romantic dalliance with a widowed choirmaster offers her some release. Jonathan (Charlie Cox) assists Jane with raising the kids and caring for Stephen, who condones their sexual relationship. Unable to face up to the rumors that Jane’s third child is his, Jonathan makes himself scarce. After Stephen loses his ability to speak and acquires a computer that will serve as his voice box, Jane recognizes that she can no longer support Stephen the way that he needs and reunites with Jonathan. She is a fascinating character, because she is willing to change her life and seek the fulfillment of her desires.

Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking with husband Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and baby. Image courtesy of Focus Features.

The Theory of Everything shines a light on one of the brightest minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it also demonstrates that, to rephrase that old adage, “behind every great mind is a woman.” The title derives from Stephen’s quest to marry Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics, but it just as equally signifies that love is the answer to what binds people together for however long they can hold on. In this way, contextualizing Stephen Hawking’s life story and scientific and cultural contributions through his wife’s experience makes the case that they couldn’t have accomplished as much separately as they did together. If finding (self-)gratification is one of the tenets of the human condition, then Theory of Everything demonstrates how our desires are constantly in flux.

Wild movie posterMonths later, and with memories of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones sloshing around in my head, I finally saw Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. I fell so hard for this film, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for its screenplay (by novelist Nick Hornby), cinematography (Yves Bélanger), and direction (Jean-Marc Vallée). Hell, I think Wild is easily one of the best films of the year and deserves one of those coveted spots not to exceed ten. Although I have never been a fan of Reese Witherspoon, I was in awe of the humanistic depth of her physical performance. It wasn’t so much a transformation—not like Eddie Redmayne’s or Charlize Theron’s for her Oscar-winning role in Monster where she turned out completely unrecognizable. Instead, Witherspoon perfectly embodies a woman who has been too hard on herself, on her spirit and on her body. When her young mother (Laura Dern in an achingly small but beautiful performance) dies of cancer, Cheryl grieves in an unexpected way, one that leads her astray from her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and into the arms of heroin addiction. With a painful divorce and an extramarital abortion behind her, Cheryl continues on her path to recovery under the most extreme of conditions: hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Along the way from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon, she treks across a variety of terrain and climates (arid deserts, snow-capped mountains, Pacific Northwest rainforests) and encounters myriad threats, ranging from animal attacks and lost shoes to death by starvation/thirst and violent sexual assault.

Although Cheryl’s grief and infidelities may have instigated her pilgrimage, Wild isn’t about a woman defined by her relationship to her ex-husband Paul. The experience of losing him and herself in her grief even influences Cheryl to invent a new last name on the divorce papers: Strayed. In fact, Wild is a film about a woman’s self-programmed reinvention, or as the memoir’s subtitle states, she goes “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Cheryl takes ownership of the mistakes that she has made and grapples with how she took her mother for granted (but thankfully, like in this year’s indie rom-com extraordinaire Obvious Child, she unapologetically chooses an abortion when she stumbles into an unwanted pregnancy). By letting go of her social attachments for three months, during which time she calls on Paul and friends for support of the motivational and material kind, Cheryl learns to forgive and love herself again. For me, the most poignant aspect of the film is that Cheryl chooses her relationship with Bobbi as the one to define her, saying, “My mother was the love of my life.”

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, unpictured) remembers how much she wanted to be like her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) with that irrepressible smile. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Moreover, Wild comes the closest of the Best Actress nominees so far in proposing a film about the human condition that just happens to be focalized through a woman’s experience. As I have already mentioned, the film is about self-programmed reinvention, love and regret, life and death. I imagine that we can all relate to a character who hurts the people who are closest, sometimes purposefully, sometimes without thinking at all. This doesn’t make the character a bad person, just someone who needs to learn to appreciate what life and love can offer. Crucially, it is too late for Cheryl to treat Bobbi as she deserved, but Cheryl’s arduous and

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes her own way. This obstacle course is the least of her problems. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

somewhat ascetic pilgrimage brings this all into focus. Presenting a woman’s story as universally humanistic is feminist in its own right, but Wild also engages the philosophy in more pointed ways. For example, virtually everyone she meets on the trail is astonished at her abilities and takes umbrage at her insistence to hike the trail without a male companion. She even locks heads with a reporter from The Hobo News who cannot comprehend her voluntary choice to drop out of society for a while and thus identifies her as a lost soul, a “hobo” with no job, home, or family. But most surprising of all, a group of three young men on the trail adopt Cheryl as their personal hero, having read her poetic entries in guest-books, which quote feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich. Believing feminism to be part and parcel of humanism, Wild makes clear, as bell hooks once wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”

Two Days One Night movie posterJust when I thought this year’s nominated lead performances by women couldn’t get any richer, I saw Marion Cotillard, de-glamorized, in Two Days, One Night. It is a much smaller film than the others, both in scale and, seemingly, in depth. Cotillard plays a working-class laborer who, given the weekend, must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their one thousand-euro bonuses so that she can keep her job. Whether or not the solar panel factory can legally put her continued employment to a vote by its employees is never questioned, but almost everyone she confronts points out that the boss’s ultimatum is unfair. Shot in their characteristic social realist/fly-on-the-wall style, the latest film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne plays out like a thriller of a cruel joke: Will she get enough votes to keep her job? How many more times do we have to hear her plead with her co-workers to vote for her? Asking for anyone’s help is an ordeal in and of itself for Sandra, who, when the film begins, is on the brink of returning to work following a long absence (it gradually becomes clearer that she suffered a mental breakdown). A pathetic decision, choosing to speak with people in person whenever possible is costly in terms of time (she zigzags all over town in order to track them down at their homes, on the street, or in corner groceries or laundromats) and an emotionally draining exercise in futility. Thankfully, no two encounters are exactly the same, even if those unwilling to help her always have the same reason: they need the money, whether to pay their child’s tuition, build an addition to their house, or cover the electric bill for six months.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) confronts a co-worker who cannot see beyond himself. Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.

What makes Two Days, One Night so quietly impressive is its premise: to what lengths will someone go to keep her job? How will she convince human being after human being, with wants and needs not completely unidentical to her own, to sacrifice material gain in order to come to her aid? How will she react when, based on the number of votes pledged in her favor so far, her future looks bleak? Providing Sandra with a psychiatric disorder heightens the stakes—and the Dardennes do go to some dark places—but otherwise Two Days, One Night could be about anyone. In fact, there isn’t much character development in terms of Sandra’s familial role so as to make the part gender-specific. In other words, she spends so little time with her two children that her identity as mother does not define her. Even Sandra’s greatest champion, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), frames her ordeal as one about recovering her lost pride. Her humanity, and her repeated attempts to coax the more humane choice out of her peers, defines Sandra. Of course the couple needs her income to get by, but their situation is no more dire than that of most of her co-workers. In this way, the film is about overcoming adversity and preserving your own self-worth, arguably the most humanistic ideal. Come Monday morning, Sandra is one vote shy of keeping her job. Touched by the generosity of some of her colleagues, she refuses the boss’s offer to rehire her at the end of the season, because it would mean that one of her pledges would lose his contract with the company. Initially stunning, her decision to incur further economic hardship isn’t just about worker solidarity but also personal integrity. The final scene of Sandra’s bad-news phone call to Manu represents a revolution of some sorts: walking away from the factory, smiling, Sandra is buoyant with every step, personally motivated by the support of Manu and her co-workers to find another job. If she can get through this past weekend, she can approach any new challenge with enough courage and integrity to overcome it.

Still Alice movie posterRounding out the five nominees for Best Actress, Julianne Moore presents a deeply moving and sensitive portrayal of a woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice, an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name. Admittedly, I am not Moore’s biggest fan (she’s usually too showy for my tastes), and the negative reviews of the film colored my perception of it going in. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the film “plays like a dusted-off, mid-‘90s Movie of the Week.” However, not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film, I was also overcome by profound sadness and grief, unable to talk about what I had just seen without choking up. Who cares if Still Alice is emotionally manipulative? More than any of the other films nominated in this category, Still Alice examines what makes us who we are while confronting our own mortality.

A world-famous linguistics professor at Columbia University, Alice Howland is the first to recognize that “something is wrong with [her].” Sometimes she can’t find the right word, and at other times she gets disoriented on her aerobic runs around the neighborhood. Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), writes off her worries as evidence that at 50, she’s simply getting older. Determined to find the root of her newfound problems (it feels like her brain is slipping farther and farther away from her), she sees a neurologist in secret and eventually receives the dreaded diagnosis. The effects of the disease would be difficult for anyone to cope with, but as her doctor explains, since Alice carries the familial gene for early onset Alzheimer’s and is extremely well-educated, she can expect to deteriorate more rapidly than if she didn’t have the gene and wasn’t so well-educated. She simply has much more to lose, and for a linguist whose life’s work has been the study of human communication systems, the thought of losing her ability to relate who she is with words is devastating. As it is for me, as it is for anyone.

As her mother's primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
As her mother’s primary caregiver, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) tries to comfort a sad and spacey Alice (Julianne Moore). Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

But Alice is intellectually resourceful, and she can better compensate for her incapacities. It takes a while for her to admit defeat and leave her tenured position (her meeting with the chair of her department is the most implausible scene in the whole picture, for it would never be up to her colleagues to dismiss her because she has a health issue). John and their three children try to look after Alice as best they can. Eventually, their youngest, the Los Angeles-set aspiring actress and free spirit Lydia (Kristen Stewart), agrees to move back to New York to serve as Alice’s primary caregiver when John accepts a position at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. In the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship, Alice’s older children, the lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth) and the medical student Tom (Hunter Parrish), suffer from a severe lack of character development. While Anna and Lydia sometimes butt heads as to what is best for their mother, Tom’s only real function is to accompany Alice to a talk she gives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Film critic Jason Bailey denigrated this speech as a “forced, false moment” by writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, thereby completely forgetting that the scene parallels an earlier keynote address she gave at a linguistics event where she spoke confidently on topics related to her main line of inquiry: why do humans talk and how to they learn to communicate? In the later scene, the transformation that Alice has undergone throughout the film is palpable. Anxious and insecure, she must use a highlighter as she speaks at the podium so that she does not lose her place in the speech. Frustrated with her inability to write a persuasive argument using medical and linguistic jargon, she takes Lydia’s advice and writes about how it feels to lose her mind. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. For, as it is made clear throughout the picture, we are who we are because we have made ourselves into whoever we want to be. For Alice, that has been an expert on language acquisition, an equal partner in a loving relationship with a man who confidently says she was the smartest person he’d ever met, and a dependable and accepting mother.

Still Alice also makes the case that we are who we are because of what we remember. As Alice grapples with her diagnosis, slipping farther and farther away from the people in her life, she returns to memories of her sister, whom she lost as a teenager. I initially dismissed the final scene of the film, failing to recognize that Alice’s imagining she and her sister on a beach is her defiant stance against the havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks on her mind. She clings to this memory as if to remind herself of who she is. This shot immediately follows the scene in which Lydia reads from the play Angels in America and asks her mother if she knows what the speech is about. Alice smiles and struggles to say, “Love.” Again, in his review of Still Alice, which he labels “desperate” and unoriginal, Bailey fails to see how the film’s ending illuminates something fundamental about the human experience: our appreciation and understanding of art and how it reflects our perception of what the meaning of life is. The Flavorwire film critic finds Glatzer and Westmoreland’s “desperation… particularly rancid at the end” because, “in lieu of saying anything moving or profound, they simply shoplift the ending of Angels in America.” In presumably one of Alice’s last moments of clarity, she demonstrates for Lydia that she is still present, that she can understand Tony Kushner’s complex speech, and that she loves her daughter and her long-lost sister. It doesn’t matter that these “moving and profound” words, to correct Bailey’s statement, are not Alice’s or Lydia’s. Not everything we say or do is original; the purpose of art is to draw connections between experiences, and the meaning of life is to see how art shapes us.

Contrary to what Russell Crowe thinks about roles for older women in Hollywood, the reality is that quality parts for women at any age are terribly lacking. While most Oscar prognosticators, critics, and cinephiles like myself watch the Academy Awards tonight and lament the fatedness of Julianne Moore’s, Patricia Arquette’s, Eddie Redmayne’s, and J.K. Simmons’s prize-winning, I will remember that for the first time in a long while, it seems that every nominee in the Best Actress category was phenomenal. Rather than choose a winner, I wish we could simply celebrate these five actresses and many more, because they brought to life film characters whose experiences illuminated different facets of the human condition. I hope this trend in representing women with “interesting, fully realized inner lives” continues. And I don’t care if they are wives or mothers anymore. Restricting what kinds of parts women play in film and in society isn’t humane.

Long Take: In Defense of Ruby Sparks

Viewed July 26, 2012

For months, I’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby Sparks (2012), a quirky romantic comedy by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their first film since 2006’s runaway indie success Little Miss Sunshine. But on the eve of its release, I became slightly less interested after I read a surprisingly spoiler-less interview with the film’s screenwriter and titular star Zoe Kazan. In it, not only does she dismiss the label Manic Pixie Dream Girl from any talk about her character, she also, in my opinion, makes a bone-headed argument about why the term “should die.” I can appreciate that Kazan finds the term misogynistic, that it smacks of men failing to see women (or, in this case, female film characters) as fully fledged people with rich, inner lives who shouldn’t be reduced to their tastes in music and clothes. However, it’s misguided for her to believe that because a random “blogger” (she means the film critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club) coined the term, it has no creative clout. Surely she must understand that critics and creatives are in constant dialogue with each other, if not explicitly, then implicitly. (She is, after all, relating her views to an entertainment reporter.) Ultimately, though, Kazan’s argument falls apart because even she acknowledges that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.” Yes, that’s what Rabin lamented, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (herein MPDG) persists as an archetype in film production and criticism, especially on the webpages of Vulture, with whom she granted the interview, despite critics’ and audiences’ frustration with repeatedly seeing this kind of female character. (Pop culture website Flavorwire recently posted a supercut montage purporting to capture, with mock enthusiasm, 75 years of cinema’s MPDGs.)

Having now seen Ruby Sparks, I am disappointed that, when asked by Vulture if she sees Ruby as a MPDG, Kazan did not say that, yes, in fact she is one because this film is a deconstruction of this archetype and thus explores why this kind of male fantasy is not only degrading and realistically implausible but also potentially dangerous. But just what is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and how does Ruby Sparks tackle it as a subject? I’ll warn you now: there are spoilers aplenty ahead.

According to The A.V. Club’s Rabin, who first used the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2007), the MPDG is a polarizing figure, inducing film spectators to either want to marry them (for real) or murder them because they are so annoying (not for real). These happy-go-lucky, good-looking, kooky young women are never the main protagonists in films and “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As Rabin rightly points out, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State (2004) neatly conforms to this supposed ideal, bouncing across the screen all carefree, her love bringing Braff’s depressive TV actor out of a personal and professional rut. Because she’s cute. And the love of a cute woman is really all you need to solve your problems.

Well, Kazan takes a different approach in her first produced screenplay, which she admits she only started writing as a vehicle for herself and her boyfriend, the actor Paul Dano, after he suggested, upon reading the first pages she produced, that it would be a good idea for them to collaborate on their own film project. In Ruby Sparks, Dano stars as the novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, a prodigious “genius” who hasn’t been able to follow up his remarkable debut from ten years ago. Spurred on by a writing task that his psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) assigns him, he finally harnesses some inspiration and begins writing about a twenty-six-year-old high-school drop-out from Dayton, Ohio, who doesn’t drive. He finds all of these tiny details hopelessly romantic; I find them alarmingly sexist, as he fantasizes about a helpless girl. Calvin confesses to Dr. Rosenthal that he has fallen in love with her, which Rosenthal encourages so that his patient might finally finish a novel. Then, one day, after finding women’s intimates strewn all throughout his modern bachelor pad, Ruby (Kazan) suddenly appears in his kitchen, behaving as if they are in a serious, long-term relationship. Is this Pygmalion crazy or just plain lucky?

At first, Calvin is convinced he’s going insane. But once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s less concerned about his sanity, and he begins to question the ethics of the situation. Can he date his creation, a woman who has inhabited his dreams, sprung from his spilled ink? Calvin’s older brother and only friend, Harry (Chris Messina), had originally admonished him for writing a one-dimensional character, asserting that real women aren’t like Ruby Sparks because they have problems and ambitions, changing moods and opinions. They don’t exist to stroke your ego, to love you unconditionally. Harry, as a stand-in for the audience, speaks from his own experience with his wife, which has its ups and downs. He hasn’t so much settled as he has learned to compromise. This is not to say that Harry doesn’t embrace fantasy as a natural, healthy expression of desire; he wants to live vicariously through whatever sexual encounters—real or imaginary—that Calvin has to speak of. However, when he meets Ruby and helps Calvin innocuously manipulate her to comic effect, inserting Ruby’s French fluency into his little brother’s manuscript, Harry thinks Calvin is the luckiest man alive because, as her author, he can make her do anything… especially in bed. This scene is in the trailer, which, when I first saw it, rubbed me the wrong way. Harry’s sexist sense of wonder offended me to no end, but once I saw it in context, I understood that screenwriter Kazan includes his juvenile reaction to Calvin’s magical realist luck simply to subvert it. In other words, that Ruby Sparks is a film written about a man by a woman shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Calvin gets to know his Galatea before they take a dip in the pool fully clothed, a quintessential first date for Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their beaus. Image courtesy of http://www.laweekly.com.

Like (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), Ruby Sparks is a heterosexual romance focalized through the man’s point-of-view. In both movies, the woman is a MPDG and exists as something of an enigma to the man in her life. In the earlier film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt reflects on his now-defunct relationship with a spunky co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel, an actress most associated with the controversial archetype, having appeared as a MPDG in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2007), and Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008) to name but a few. (It should be noted that she stars opposite Paul Dano in Gigantic as an eccentric, mystery woman named Happy Lolly. I kid you not.) As Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen goes through his sunny memories of their time together, he sees things he never noticed before, such as early signs of Summer’s emotional withdrawal from him. Due to the fragmented, non-chronological storytelling structure ofthe film, the viewer really only knows Summer through what Tom remembers and shows us. Summer‘s scribes are two men, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they purposely keep her at a distance, but characterizing her so that she conforms to all of the MPDG’s contours is arguably lazy writing. In an interview with Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club, screenwriter Kazan mentions that Neustadter and Weber’s keeping Summer’s interior life outside of the margins of their narrow focus partly inspired her to examine the process by which men imagine and write idealized women, making “it textual, rather than subtextual” in Ruby Sparks. Thus, in her script, there are shades of Summer in Ruby: as part of a montage, Ruby rides around on her bicycle much like Summer does, and she’s sexually adventurous, tempting Calvin into public sex with her confession on the dance floor that she took off her underwear (Summer persuades Tom to try a difficult sexual position in the shower).

Ruby is the girl of Calvin’s dreams. But why does he fantasize about someone like her? He’s looking for someone to draw him out of his shell, now that his new terrier Scotty has disappointed him so. (He had pinned all his hopes on using Scotty to meet people in the park, but he’s embarrassed that his male pooch squats to pee and wonders aloud who could like such a dog. In his dream, Ruby, of course, does, as would any mature human being.) Calvin’s an old fuddy-duddy, resistant to change. For a man of twenty-nine years, he has some strange affectations. For instance, he shuns working on a computer, opting for a typewriter instead. He appears to have rummaged through Woody Allen’s closet. And just look how at odds he is with his own environment: he lives in a sleek, modern open-plan house in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The indoor staircase railings mimic the one leading down to the outdoor swimming pool, and vice versa. He is so socially inept that it’s as if he could never take advantage of turning his house inside out before Ruby’s magical appearance.

I am always drawn to a film’s set design, interested in how a character’s living quarters reflect his or her personality (or not) and how other personages respond to it, too, and the filmmakers behind Ruby Sparks didn’t disappoint here. Nor when Calvin begrudgingly takes Ruby to meet his mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur. Gertrude and Mort live in a kind of Eden, a sprawling estate overtaken by all types of vegetation and built with recycled materials. Mort, a sculptor who works with wood, has designed the house himself, much to Gertrude’s delight. Ruby gets along with everyone attendant for the weekend, but Calvin retreats to the tree-house and seems withdrawn during dinner. He treats the hosts’ shared lifestyle with contempt because he sees his mother’s radical change from preppy subservient housewife to outspoken hippie artist as a betrayal against his deceased father. He refuses to see how happy his mother is. As a man literally in control of his girlfriend’s actions and emotions, it’s safe to assume he just doesn’t care.

Ruby Sparks takes a dark turn after the improbable lovers’ Big Sur getaway. Ruby asks for more space between them, to which he reluctantly agrees. Missing her on nights that she spends at an art class or with friends, Calvin breaks his own rule and begins rewriting her. First, he casts her as “miserable without him,” but when her clinginess proves too depressing, too suffocating, he adds another line that puts her in a constant state of ecstatic joy, which is unbearable, too. Eventually, he writes for her to be herself, to act and feel as she would on her own. Later, at a book party, the lecherous author Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, typecast again!), who is also Calvin’s mentor, hits on Ruby and talks her into stripping down to her underwear and getting in the pool. Catching her before she dipped her toe in the water, Calvin blows up. At home, he reveals that he can control her with his printed words. The fight that ensues is truly upsetting, as Calvin maniacally sits at his desk, pounding away humiliating scenarios that Ruby has no choice but to act out. The ominous score, as if plucked from a super-serious sci-fi picture and thus so out of place in a romantic comedy, melodramatically highlights the torture of this scene. It’s in this moment that, if you have not already begun to dislike Calvin’s manipulative mean-streak, then you might totally turn against him. Ruby is no longer his creation or a MPDG; by the time this scene rolls around, you sympathize with her and what she is going through. When the bombast finally settles, she locks herself in his room, and he rewrites the ending, releasing her from his influence and his life. I was so worried that something magical would happen overnight and she would instead choose to stay with him because she loves him. I was relieved that in the morning, Calvin awoke to find her gone.

The film inches toward its conclusion as Calvin buys a computer and begins work on a novel based on his magical realist romance with Ruby, published to great success as The Girlfriend. He returns to Dr. Rosenthal and pleads with the doctor to understand that he doesn’t need to believe his nutty story and that he, Calvin, doesn’t need to comprehend how it happened in order to move on with his life. At first, what happens next, in the last scene, ruined the film for me. Like Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, I argue that “Kazan winds up indulging in the very wish-fulfillment she initially sets out to deconstruct” when, walking in the park with Scotty, Calvin bumps into a young woman who is Ruby’s spitting image. She’s ditzy like her, wondering aloud how she might know him since he looks strangely familiar; after listening to her wishy washy evaluation of The Girlfriend, which she is reading when Scotty runs over to her, he opens the back of the hardcover book and points to his picture on the flap. Palm-face! They hit it off, and we’re meant to believe that they have a future together.

Calvin meets a girl who uncannily resembles his creation Ruby Sparks. Image courtesy of http://www.vulture.com.

This is the wrong ending to an otherwise acute examination of fantasy, control, and wish-fulfillment. For starters, Calvin isn’t deserving of a woman’s love. Not yet. He hasn’t fully redeemed himself, in my eyes, after constricting Ruby’s independence. He may have let her go because he loves her, but he may easily have done so because their relationship was no longer tenable. Writing The Girlfriend barely atones for his maltreatment of Ruby; he’s still using her for inspiration and is now actually profiting from it. Plus, this conclusion bears too close a resemblance to the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). In it, the one-time lovers Jim Carrey and MPDG Kate Winslet independently undergo a procedure that erases his or her memories of the other. In the end, however, they meet again as new strangers, and we’re led to believe that they’re both fated to be together and to repeatedly break each other’s heart. I’m sure that Hornaday had Eternal Sunshine in mind when she griped that Kazan isn’t brave enough to follow through with her otherwise biting critique. Funnily enough, though, Calvin’s new romance with a Ruby lookalike also echoes the ending of (500) Days of Summer. At the close of that film, Tom has finally gotten over Summer and meets an attractive, interested brunette at a job interview. Sure, she doesn’t look like Summer, but her name is Autumn, representative of a new cyclical beginning.

In fact, the more I thought about the last scene of Ruby Sparks, the more I became convinced that Kazan is really hinting that a union sprouts between Calvin and the Ruby lookalike along the lines of the one in Summer rather than a reconciliation between Calvin and Ruby, her memory of him swiped clean because of his last words about her. Specifically, there is some ambiguity as to whether Calvin and Ruby’s love story ever happened to begin with. Calvin’s conviction that he doesn’t need his psychologist to understand that it was real to him or necessarily comprehend how it could have ever possibly occurred suggests Calvin is either in denial, crazy, or imaginative. I like to think it’s the last option, for The Girlfriend represents the novelization of the film story we have, until that moment, seen unfold on-screen. In this way, it’s possible that Calvin’s relationship with Ruby as we have seen it is actually confined to the page. The fact that the redhead in the park never introduces herself—and certainly not as Ruby—encourages the interpretation that she is someone new a la Autumn from (500) Days of Summer. Contrary to what we’re initially led to believe, Calvin’s only just met in the flesh the girl of his dreams/book. While this reading of the end is ultimately more satisfying than my first reactions, it’s still problematic because it means that his immature fantasy comes true after all. This mystery woman stuns Calvin when she says that she likes Scotty just as he is, neutered urinating position and all. Really, Calvin? That remains a sticking point with you? Your dream girl must not only look and act like the Ruby of your book, she must also shower affection on the dog you’re so ashamed to own?

David Edelstein of New York rejects Ruby Sparks on the grounds that it’s merely “a thesis film, with one joke and one variation” (he’s referring to Gertrude’s happy co-dependence with Mort here). First of all, Stephen Holden of The New York Times definitely disagrees, cooing as he does about how the film is “a sleek, beautifully written and acted romantic comedy that glides down to earth in a gently satisfying soft landing.” But I have to ask, what’s wrong with a thesis film? Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining and emotionally and intellectually involving. It is more than, in Edelstein’s words, “a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self.” It is a necessary deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a woman-powered corrective to the prevalent on-screen desire for, as Harry puts it in the movie, “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing [and who] are not real.” More than this, Calvin’s experience with Ruby demonstrates how such a dream girl becoming a real-life partner is not only an unsustainable situation but ultimately an undesirable one, too (he may not tire of her completely, but at least he recognizes that her resistance to his power makes him unfit to be with her and that’s why he lets her go). You should want a real person, not an archetype or fantasy. Ruby Sparks is about how, when your wildest dreams come true, your reality and fantasy lives become unfulfilling.

When Nick Pinkerton writes in LA Weekly that Ruby Sparks “aspires to” “the sort of middle-of-the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy” that is Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want (2000), in which a sexist pig played by none other than Mel Gibson miraculously gains access to women’s unexpressed thoughts, it’s clear that he, like Edelstein, has failed to grasp Kazan’s message. Is this because these critics, but perhaps men in general, may not like being told that even fantasizing about a one-dimensional woman who represents a panacea to all their problems is wrong, especially when they probably are mature enough to never really want such a woman? I couldn’t help sensing Edelstein’s and Pinkerton’s underlying sexism when they each referred to the four-year relationship screenwriter and star Kazan shares with leading man Paul Dano. Edelstein begins his review describing Ruby Sparks as “Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano…,” circumstances which suggest that it was all the more easy for him to brush the movie off as “not a great movie.” (Remember, he called it a “thesis film.”) Pinkerton is worse, coming across as skeptical of Kazan and Dano’s off-screen connection when he writes that they are “apparently ‘romantically linked.'” It should be added, too, that he thinks that, since Kazan wrote the script, which he accuses of having “missed opportunities and withholdings,” it “begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women—that is, for maximum convenience.” The first missed opportunity he mentions? Potentially hilarious sex scenes. This reminds me of directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s grumbling that (older) male critics just couldn’t understand and appreciate their newest film, Lola Versus (2012), about a young woman confronting her messy life.

It’s true that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s direction isn’t anything to write home about. I can agree with Edelstein and Pinkerton on that front. But are the expectations that the whiz kids behind Little Miss Sunshine will deliver a masterpiece too damn high for some? I prefer Ruby Sparks to that not-so-original comedic family melodrama. I like to think that Calvin’s struggle to pen another book in the same league as his stunning debut imitates Dayton and Faris’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Apparently, they’re really picky when choosing projects and love working with first-time screenwriters. So take that!