The Déjà Vu of Indie Movie Love

You'd be forgiven for thinking that you've seen this year's quirky indie romantic comedies before. What goes into the creation of today's indie love potion #9?

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Clockwise from top left: 500 Days of Summer, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Garden State.

So I saw this movie the other day. It’s possible you might’ve seen it as well; it’s the one with that guy, you’d recognize him if you saw him — maybe he was in a sitcom or something like that? Anyway, he’s really depressed and worn down by the daily grind of modern life and then he meets this girl — she’s really familiar as well — and the film’s kind of about how they get together. In the process, though, he learns from this girl that he shouldn’t be so uptight about everything. By the end of the movie, he’s ended up much happier, freed of all these material concerns, so I guess it’s kind of an inspirational story, if you want to look at it that way. It’s even got this great soundtrack written by the guy from that really awesome band. You know the movie I’m talking about, right…?




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Wait. Maybe the guy was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the girl was… I can’t remember. That brunette that’s been in all of those other movies. You know. Whatsername.



No no no. Wait. I got the genders mixed up. It’s a depressed girl, and it’s all about this weird guy that she meets who teaches her how to love again. That’s it.



I think you can see where I’m going with this by now.

To complain that there’s an apparent running trend in the genre commonly known as “quirky indie romantic comedies” feels, at this point, akin to complaining that maybe grass is a little too green. After all, all of the movies above feature the kinds of things that we want from the genre, don’t they? We want to see the awkward exchanges between our two young lovers, and be told the comforting stories about how love can transform us and save us, and make sense of the world around us. This is what we want, right down to the now-traditional acoustic-strummed soundtrack with softly sung cascading vocals that will accompany the inevitable scene where things are going wrong, and our hero is wandering the city streets at twilight wondering just what to do next. It’s comfort food for people who listen to Death Cab for Cutie.

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And yet even comfort food surely shouldn’t be so comfortable as to be predictable. The problem with the prevalence of recurring tropes in so many of today’s indie romantic comedies is that it’s not just that we’re seeing similar ideas come up now and again, we’re seeing the same story over and over again, with only minor twists or gimmicks to mix things up. All too often, you can predict with depressing levels of success just what you’re going to see in any given movie. Even if you’re already expecting the latest incarnation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the repeated attempts to convince us that said MPDGs would find themselves attracted to depressed older men from the trailers, there’s still a forlorn hope that everything else surrounding that idea might be new and interesting. Instead, you can pretty much count on the “touching hugging/intimate scene, sans dialogue, set to simple acoustic instrumental”, or a gratuitous appearance by “wacky” parents, all leading up to some attempt to draw all of the various dysfunctional characters in the movie into some grand statement about the additional, additive inhumanity we are all experiencing in this increasingly technological world where everyone talks at each other instead of, like, just listening, brother.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Bonus points can be earned for any of the following:

  • Actors from television comedies — for some reason, usually NBC shows (Celeste and Jesse Forever, I’m looking at you) — demonstrating their acting chops/sensitive sides by appearing in roles in which they get to frown a lot and use the kind of language that can’t be said on broadcast television without a lot of complaints.
  • At least one character having an incurable disease which enables them to gain/dispense the kind of wisdom that comes from having a different perspective on the everyday worries. If said character is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or male equivalent, all the better; that way, our romantic lead doesn’t have to make any kind of long-lasting commitment that may remind audiences of their own such commitments (or lack thereof).
  • A healthy dose of condescension towards those who haven’t had the opportunity for the enlightenment received by both our lead character and the audience, particularly if they fulfill other familiar stereotypes about Americans that make the audience feel uncomfortable (see: Southerners, people from Los Angeles, selfish New Yorkers).
  • Some kind of attempt to evoke nostalgia for not only a past time, but a past era of moviemaking, most likely the 1970s or ’80s when the director and/or audience were at a particularly impressionable age.

Add all this together, and suddenly the creation of a modern quirky indie romantic comedy becomes less one of “creation” or crafting a narrative and more a particularly elaborate and expensive game of Mad Libs: “(Familiar, Non-threatening Actor) is (Dumped By His Girlfriend/Fired From His Job/Given News of A Terminal Illness) and feels that life is meaningless before meeting (Attractive But Not Overtly Sexual Actress) who teaches him how to (Love Again/Be Himself/Ignore Societal Pressures And Discover His Bliss). Oh, and (She loves Billy Bragg songs/the movies of Nicolas Roeg/Meco action figures).” All you need to seal the deal is either a puny or overly verbose title and a quick spin through your iTunes playlist to find just the right music to nail that one special scene where the two characters finally conquer the forces of nature/immaturity that were keeping them apart. Is it too early for a Polyphonic Spree revival, do you think? “Soldier Girl” would sound just right for that scene.

(MORE: Safety Not Guaranteed But Satisfaction Highly Likely)

So where did all of this come from? Well, it depends on how far back you want to look. There’s a definite temptation to point to 2004’s Garden State as patient zero for this particular epidemic. After all, the movie — the writing and directing debut of Scrubs‘ amiable Zach Braff, who also took the lead role — features an aimless, emotionally stunted lead character who, thanks to his interactions with Natalie Portman’s Sam, finally comes to terms with the emotional baggage that he’d been unable to handle for years. To make the cliché complete, it also comes with visual references to movies from the 1970s (Braff has been vocal about the influence of Woody Allen’s 1970s output and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude on the movie) and a soundtrack that featured Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, Iron & Wine and launched the American career of The Shins. But while Garden State may have be responsible for foisting this latest round of these ideas on the world, it didn’t create any of them; the ennui of Braff’s Andrew Largeman echoes the post-collegiate confusion of The Graduate‘s Benjamin Braddock, and Natalie Portman’s Sam was just the then-latest incarnation of the Magic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that stretches back through movie classics like 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. Trying to push the blame for Seeking a Friend at the End of The World or (500) Days of Summer onto Braff’s movie feels about as logical as blaming the Beatles for the career of Justin Bieber, or Radiohead for the existence of Coldplay. Okay, maybe you can have that last one.

(It occurs to me that this current round of quirky indie romantic comedy has two rarely considered influences looming large in the background, beyond Braff’s movie: Charlie Kaufman and Dave Eggers. Throughout all of the movies referenced above, you can find influence of — or a strangely coincidental similarity to — Eggers’ writing, especially his initial A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; it’s in the ever-so heartfelt and intense search for a deeper meaning in life, as well as the uncomfortable tonal mix of sarcasm and sincerity that acts as defense mechanism against those seeking to criticize that search. Kaufman’s hand may be less easily identifiable, but it’s there in the fantastical elements that float through movies like Safety Not Guaranteed or Ruby Sparks — a rejection that this world is all there is and the desire to use science fiction ideas to explain emotions and experiences too complex to tackle otherwise.)

If there’s some solace to be had for those who have had enough of the overly familiar tropes and stories these movies serve up on a regular basis, it may be: This, too, shall pass. Every generation of filmmakers has its own clichés and blind spots that it works through, as can be evidenced by this particularly interesting historical document detailing the millennial incarnation of these complaints, courtesy of a 1999 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Read through that list, and ask yourself: How long has it been since we’ve seen characters argue over which old TV shows were better, or “pansexual love triangles”? It’s almost enough to make you nostalgic (almost), but its main purpose should be this: If we can get over the suffocating influence of Quentin Tarantino in just over a decade, then just think how quickly we’ll be able to move past the winsome, off-kilter and self-consciously kooky wiles of Zooey Deschanel and Greta Gerwig.