24th Jul2019

Retrospective: 500 Days of Summer

by Xenia Grounds

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Movies. Music. Television. Video Games. Animation. If there is one theme that all these mediums have explored, then it would be: Love. Many of us are brought up on this idea of ‘The One’. However, when we start to enter actual romantic relationships, we learn that romances are rarely like the movies and songs we’ve grown up with. This is why 500 Days of Summer is one of the most refreshing movies about romance ever made and why it continues to be relevant ten years after its release. It captures a heartbreaking but necessary truth and because of that, it is one of my favourite movies of all time and one that holds a very special place in my heart.

500 Days of Summer centres around hopeless romantic Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who meets Summer (played by Zooey Deschannel) and Tom believes that Summer is the one for him. She’s beautiful, quirky, likes the same things he does but she doesn’t want a relationship and doesn’t believe love exists. As the tagline says: ‘This is not a love story but a story about love.’ Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love but girl does not.

In the beginning of 500 Days of Summer, Tom and Summer have broken up and we watch their entire relationship unfold from their first conversation, romantic moment and the red flags which show why the relationship didn’t work. It’s all about expectations and reality. Tom has unrealistic expectations because he’s grown up with these romantic ideals from songs and movies. He’s a guy who completely misunderstood the ending of The Graduate. He projects all these expectations he has about a soulmate onto Summer. Tom’s in love with the idea of Summer and what she represents which sets him up for inevitable heartbreak because she doesn’t live up to those expectations and nor should she have to.
At first glance, Summer seems like the typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I’d argue it’s for men what the Prince Charming archetype is for women. For those who aren’t familiar with terms like MPDGs, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the girl that the soulful and brooding male falls for because she teaches him to embrace life and its mysteries. As the movie progresses, Summer proves to be a deconstruction of that as she shows the danger of idealising women as romantic objects rather than as a real person with flaws. Summer is quirky, beautiful and fun but she’s also unsure about Tom being a boyfriend to her and keeps Tom at a level of emotional distance.

When I first watched this movie as a teenager, I remember thinking that Tom wasn’t the one at fault and that Summer was misleading him with how she acted. I grew up on fairy-tales, epic romantic stories and love songs so I was a lot like Tom once and I was guilty (like many have been) of naively believing that relationships are meant to be like something out of Garden State. However, having grown up and been in actual relationships since my first viewing, Tom’s flaws are a lot more apparent to me. Summer is honest from the start about not wanting a relationship but Tom forces her into something she isn’t comfortable with being. Neither is faultless in how they handle things because Summer danced around the issue for a long time whenever Tom wanted to define what was going on between them which kept him believing in a false reality of sorts.

Where 500 Days of Summer really shines is in those moments of painfully accurate relatability. There are a few instances where we’ve all been in Tom’s position which is what makes the character likeable and sympathetic to us. For example, there’s the ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ dance scene which happens after Tom sleeps with Summer for the first time. It’s shot in the style of a music video to represent his emotions. He’s on cloud nine, he’s smiling from cheek to cheek, an upbeat song in his head, dancing down the street and it’s all sunshine and rainbows. I’m sure many people have had that high from being with someone that we think is our soulmate. There’s how Tom describes how he feels about Summer when he’s in love with her which is very sweet and sappy which is then later comedically contrasted with his bitter feelings after they’ve broken up. The best example (and the most famous part of the movie) is the ‘Expectations vs Reality’ scene. You get to see Tom’s expectations and the reality play out side-by-side until reality ultimately wins out. I won’t spoil it for those unaware but it’s an emotional gut punch which you’ve either experienced or will experience in your life which is what makes it so powerful and memorable. My heart felt like it dropped to my ribcage and it still has that effect on me to this day. It’s the scene that drives the message of the movie home to the person watching.

However, while 500 Days of Summer deconstructs the movie romance on every level, it never suggests that true love doesn’t exist. One of Tom’s friends says something quite poignant about his girlfriend which is she’s better than the girl of his dreams because she’s real. The ending to the movie reinforces this healthy outlook as well by reminding you that heartbreak isn’t permanent and in fact can provide positive growth if you do correctly learn from it. It’s not a story that is cynical about love but rather criticises the idealised version of it. Love can hurt but it’s still worth giving it a chance. I find myself rewatching 500 Days of Summer frequently because there’s always something new to take away from it as I experience more in life. It’s a cautionary tale for the young and an amazing recapture of learning about the complexities of romance for the experienced.

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