"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008)
An idle daydream that we all have (especially since we're forever linked, via the wonders of social media, with the ghosts of exes past) is the what-if concerning our first love. What if we could go back in time and fix things; or what if they were to come back to us, many years later? Would that spark, that compatibility, that specialness, still be there? These are some of the questions grappled with in David Fincher's deliriously decadent and oddly poignant "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," wherein Brad Pitt plays a man who ages backwards, starting out life as a withered old man and getting progressively younger, and Cate Blanchett as the woman who falls in love with him, while watching him literally deteriorate to young age. The most powerful section of the movie is when they "meet in the middle," when they're comparably the same age and have at least some hope of living a traditionally happy lifestyle. In an overblown way, their relationship is a metaphor for the way that people change and proof that even if first love is fleeting, the bonds it forms are forever and always, like a thick length of cable running just beneath the surface of your life. Fincher, who has no time for bullshit, makes the fantastical elements feel hauntingly real, and brings the emotional elements to vivid life, too.
"The Graduate" (1967)
1967 was a heck of a year; the Vietnam War was in full swing, the summer of love swept through San Francisco and took off around the world, The Beatles made “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” and a little fella called Charlie Chaplin released his final film. If cinema can symbolize an era, then few films can symbolize the death of the conservative '50s and the inauguration of the modern era better than "The Graduate." Mike Nichols originally wanted Robert Redford or Warren Beatty for the part of Benjamin Braddock, the college graduate spending an aimless summer figuring his life out, but dismissed them both as neither had ever “struck out with a girl.” Dustin Hoffman eventually got the part for his "underdog" qualities and delivered a performance so good that the film is in the preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry and sexually inexperienced college boys everywhere (they still exist, right?) continue to dream of their very own liaisons with a sexy older woman (Stifler's Mom from "American Pie" anyone?). But whatever it is that occurs between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin, the real discovery of "first love" is that of Benjamin and Elaine Robinson, the daughter. The two young lovers, as they embark on a confused and messy romance, come to understand the hazardous nature of adult relationships and realise that their only chance of happiness is to emancipate themselves from the hypocritical constraints of their parents' generation. A successful stage adaptation and the enduring appeal of the film (and its Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack), mean that this tribute to the growing pains of young adulthood remains, and will surely always remain, a cultural touchstone for generations of film-watchers.
"Let the Right One In" (2008)
For a movie set in snowy Soviet-era Sweden and featuring one character who is a horrible, blood-sucking vampire, "Let the Right One In" is oddly relatable. Oskar, a 12-year-old boy living in a depressed suburb of Stockholm, is constantly picked on at school and ignored by both of his divorced parents. His life brightens when Eli, a strange young girl, moves into Oskar's apartment building, a brutalist slab of concrete in a snowy urban tangle. Oskar is smitten, even though Eli seems to be connected to a series of brutal, ritualistic murders (carried out by a serial killer who seems to be in her thrall, a position Oskar could very much find himself in one day) and, in one of the movie's most interesting wrinkles (that didn't get carried over to the wonderful American remake, "Let Me In"), Eli might not be a girl at all. "Let the Right One In" is a beautiful ode to first love, the way that we form bonds with people instantly and irrevocably (Oskar and Eli send morse-coded messages to each other by tapping on the wall that separates their apartments) and the fact that, when you fall in love, you're able to overlook a whole lot of awful shit about the other person, up to and including vampirism. Sometimes when you fall in love with someone for the first time it hurts. "Let the Right One In" makes that hurt incredibly literal.
“Show Me Love” (1998)
Lukas Moodysson, later to become one of the darlings of European films after a string of high-quality and often uncompromising films, made his name with this spiky paean to teenage romance. In common with many examples of the "young love" genre of filmmaking, "Show me Love" uses the claustrophobic atmosphere of small-town life, in this case the town of Åmål in Sweden (hence the film's original title "Fucking Åmål"), to frame the liberating and dangerous consequences of romantic love. The difference here is that it is two lesbian teenage girls who fall in love with another, but the film's great virtue is that never makes too much of a meal out of this and instead just offers as realistic a portrayal of the modern teenager as you are likely to find anywhere. Drugs, drink and good deal of moping and hysterical behaviour feature strongly, but this never detracts from the essentially honest and sympathetic treatment of adolescent relationships. The two girls, Agnes and Elin, are polar opposites, one reclusive and introverted, an outcast at school, and the other an outgoing and popular wild child, and this makes for a combustible and precarious love affair in the classic mould. Boasting a soundtrack of catchy pop numbers (including the anthem-like signature tune by Swedish chanteuse Robyn), "Show Me Love" was beaten only by "Titanic" at the Swedish box office for 1998-1999 and picked up a host of awards. The agony and euphoria of teenage life has rarely been captured with more verve and clarity than it is here and Moodysson, just as often controversial as he is mercurial, was an artist already fully-formed when he burst with this onto the European stage.
"Romeo and Juliet" (1968)
Well, duh. No list of this kind would be complete without the best-known story of (tragic) young love, William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." There have been countless film versions, not including this year's, penned by "Downton Abbey" writer Julian Fellowes, including George Cukor's 1936 version, and Baz Luhrmann's contemporary take, which has been livening up English classes since 1996. But perhaps the most useful for our purposes is Franco Zefferelli's 1968 film, if only because in casting 16-year-old Olivia Hussey and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting, it sticks closest to the actual ages of the characters. (Romeo is never directly given an age in the play, but Juliet has, according to her father in the play "Not seen the change of fourteen years.") Even more so than in Luhrmann's MTV version, the pair's naivety and unaffectedness brings out that first flush of love in a way missed by many of the other attempts. It's also probably Zeffirelli's best film; sensuous, sincere and swooningly romantic. Even today, in the shadow of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, it feels fresh, and for a 45-year-old film of a 400-year-old play, that's an impressive achievement.
As we mentioned up top, there are a blizzard of other options out there, but a couple that we're sorry we didn't get to are Aussie coming-of-age tale "The Year My Voice Broke" and classic Bill Forsythe movie "Gregory's Girl," while probably any of the other Nicholas Sparks fables could also have made it in, especially "A Walk to Remember," if we'd been willing and able. The Paltrow/Hawke "Great Expectations" is another adaptation of a literary classic that features a profound, life-changing first love (along with "Romeo and Juliet" and "Wuthering Heights" ) and, while we've a few foreign films in our list above, overseas, particularly European filmmakers come to this well very often. In fact, one peerless first love film we would have liked to have included, but stopped ourselves because it's not out yet, is the astonishing, Palme d'Or-winning "Blue is the Warmest Color," and there'd probably be more than enough films from France alone for another feature down the line. Beyond that, there are literally too many first love-as-subtheme films to mention, with filmmakers often using the architecture of this kind of story as a framework for experiments in other genres, so there are plenty of titles you can legitimately be enraged we left off—tell us in the comments which ones and why. - Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Kieran McMahon, Diana Drumm