This Friday sees the release of James Ponsoldt's "Smashed" follow-up, the tenderly drawn coming-of-age teen story "The Spectacular Now." Boasting standout performances from young leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, the film, which we reviewed out of Sundance and called "valuable and honest," evokes the growing pains of the unusually real-feeling central duo via a familiar conduit—the story of their first love. Romantics that we are at heart, we took this opportunity to sit on our sofas for a week with a bucket of ice cream and a pack of Kleenex, revisiting a slew of films that share that theme. Given the breadth of the field, we've done our best to concentrate on films that take first love as their primary theme, but it should be noted that it crops up as a subplot with astonishing frequency, too.
Aside from finally giving more than one Playlister an excuse to watch "The Notebook," first love stories provide a neat complement to First Time movies, which we ran through last week following the release of "The To Do List." And while we basically avoided instances of crossover, it is telling to note how few real crossovers there are: usually it's pretty clear, even if circumstances are similar, whether a film is going for the heart or for the groin. If the latter is often broader and more comedic, the story of a first love lends itself to the more dramatic end of the spectrum—even the comedies we list out here tend to be of the bittersweet variety. But again, it's a near-universal situation, from the blush and awkwardness and "no one's ever felt this way ever!" of first infatuation, through the sometimes painful process of discovering if there's any hope of reciprocation, and, more often than not, to the relationship's end. Because while some films here may try to convince us otherwise, "first love" rather implies that there's a second, and maybe a third... James Garner claims in "Murphy's Romance" to be "in love for the last time in my life," but if last love is really the one we should all be aiming for, first love, often tinged with nostalgia for younger, more innocent times, is the one that exerts the real pull on our cinematic imaginations.
"Like Crazy" (2011)
One of the better romantic movies from the last few years, "Like Crazy" is a thoroughly modern and wholly indispensable ode to first love and the oversized pains that we endure for it. When young Jacob (Anton Yelchin) falls in love with Anna (Felicity Jones), it feels like they will be together forever, but she eventually lets her visa lapse and is denied entry back into the country. Thus begins an agonizing relationship where they try desperately to reconnect, with almost everything getting in their way. Director Drake Doremus based "Like Crazy" on his relationship with his now ex-wife (who was Austrian), and there's a relatability to the movie that goes beyond that specific instance, amplified by the verite way that Doremus shoots, stealing many of the shots without permission and editing the movie in the style of the movie's central relationship, with days blurring together and then, all of a sudden, becoming painfully protracted. Most amazing is the movie's final shot, which we won't ruin here, but is just as emotionally devastating and singularly powerful as anything in Richard Linklater's 'Before' series. Most first loves don't have happy endings, and "Like Crazy" is no exception. Like a first love, it stays with you, long after it's over.
"Antoine & Colette"
Along with the "7 Up" series, and more recently Richard Linklater's 'Before' series, François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series is one of the great cinematic portraits of growing up and the passage of time—five films, over twenty years, tracking Jean-Pierre Leaud's title character from 12-year-old juvenile delinquent in "The 400 Blows" to thirty-something divorcé in "Love On The Run." "Antoine & Collette" is probably the least substantial of the series—a half-hour short made as part of the "Love At Twenty" anthology (which also features contributions from Marcel Ophuls and Andrzej Wajda, among others)—but as the film that kickstarts Antoine's love life, it's an undeniably crucial entry. The film sees Doinel living alone and making a living by making LPs, when he's drawn to the young Colette (Marie-France Pisier). He befriends her and is accepted into her family, having long since been estranged from his own, but his feelings are never returned, and he's left by the film's end watching her leave in the arms of her older boyfriend. Based on an infatuation that Truffaut himself went through at 17, it's lighter in tone than 'Blows'—its form allowing a slightness that proves somewhat freeing for the director and setting the tone for the future Doinel pictures. As with many first loves, it comes back to haunt as well; Colette returns, again played by Pisier, in the final Doinel picture "Love On The Run."
"Goodbye First Love" (2011)
An intensely autobiographical piece of work from one of France's brightest young talents, the appropriately-named Mia Hansen-Løve, "Goodbye First Love" is a gorgeous-looking, sensual piece of work that, while it's occasionally let down by the somewhat blank nature of its leads, still has a deep vein of feeling running through it. It begins in 1999, with the teenage Camille (Lola Creton, who became a serious breakout off the back of this) head-over-heels for the older Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). They have a blissful holiday together in the Loire Valley, but he goes away traveling, and his letters dry up, leaving Camille distraught and suicidal in a way that only the end of first love can do. Over a decade later, she's seemingly over it, in a relationship with her professor, but when she meets Sullivan again, her life's turned upside down. Hansen-Løve's thesis is that you never really get over the first person you fall for, and in a way, the blank-slate nature of the characters helps you identify with them, but it also makes it tricky to become particularly invested in the pair—they don't share a great deal of chemistry and it's hard to see what Camille sees in Sullivan particularly. Still, Hansen-Løve directs beautifully, and only a statue wouldn't feel a sting of recognition somewhere in here.
“My Girl” (1991)
Friendships between boys and girls were always met with scorn in elementary school. A boy couldn’t be your friend without being your boyfriend (literally one of the most mortifying insults that could be hurled). “My Girl” taught girls that it’s more than acceptable to be friends with boys, and that sometimes they can be the best friends you’ll ever have. Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky, who will forever be associated with the coolest name in movie history) grows up in the 1960s with a father who runs a funeral parlor and without a mother, who died during her birth. The only reliable influence in Vada’s life is her neurotic best friend, Thomas J (Macaulay Culkin). The two navigate the morass of life and death, and throughout the film, Thomas J understands Vada and never judges her quirks; she’s a hypochondriac who visits the doctor daily. The two aren’t in love, and aside from a quick experimental kiss, they never talk about being in love with each other. No, Vada’s first love is her elementary school teacher (played adorably by Griffin Dunne who gave this writer unrealistic expectations about men for decades), but by the end, even Vada realizes what puppy love feels like. Since the movie is told through Vada’s eyes, we never learn whether Thomas J loves Vada; we have to judge him by his actions, and the fact he would do anything for her only makes the climax all the more heartbreaking (I won’t spoil it for you here, but it’s fairly traumatizing). “My Girl” taught young girls that love comes in all forms, whether romantic or platonic, and that ultimately the love of a best friend is the strongest bond of all.
"Summer Of 42" (1971)
As you might notice from this list, summer and adolescent affairs are intrinsically tied together. After all, most of us have our first stomach-churning lurches of love and tiny tastes of heartbreak in those long warm months where school's out and the world's our oyster (she was Irish and her name was Daisy, in case you were wondering...). One of the more seminal cinematic examples of this is "Summer Of 42," a phenomenon in its time (released in the wake of "Love Story," it was a huge hit, and its novelization was one of the best-selling books of the 1970s, strangely enough), which has been a touch forgotten by subsequent generations. Based on the real-life experiences of "The Great Santini" screenwriter Herman Mauch, it's set in, you guessed it, 1942, when 15-year-old Hermie (Gary Grimes) is spending the summer in Nantucket. One day, he's struck by a beautiful young bride, Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neill), whose husband has just gone off to war, and becomes infatuated with her while his friends muck around with the local girls. It might not seem like he has much of a chance at first, but tragedy has a way of bringing them together. It's admirably low-key stuff, with a deep vein of authenticity and restrained direction from Robert Mulligan ("To Kill A Mockingbird"), who's somewhat of an overlooked humanist among directors of the period. Truffaut and Kubrick were both fans (the latter features a clip from the film in "The Shining"), so if it's passed you by before now, it's well worth checking out.