90 Days of Spring

an interesting atypical three-act structure

15-min read

Every once in a while a movie comes out which defines the tone for its generation:

  • Wiz for the Great Depression kids of the late 30s, providing a real shock of color in a world that seemed bleak and gray. And if ever a remake who better to cast than Lizzo; an artist who can singlehandedly carry the entire cast, no challenge.

  • Star Wars for the angst-ridden tweens growing weary of their cultural landscape and looking for a respite from their earth-bound lives. Successfully answering the age-old question of what is good or evil? We don’t talk about The Mandalorian.

  • Harry Potter. Loss and love. Hubris and humility. Rules and Rebellion.

And especially in cult classics about love or coming-of-age, these films represent and exemplify that specific era, with a helping hand from the music, fashion, and outlook from one’s life to completely flesh the experience out. But cracks start to form when you judge the story through one lens and don’t let it breathe. Marination of food is essential to adding flavor by immersion and similar to critiquing a diegesis, it’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed.

In this writeup, I explore the nonlinear narrative of (500) Days of Summer and how single viewing film criticism is not a reliable method of gauging a director’s vision and a second watch might be essential to painting the whole picture.

Love? Love! Love.

500 Days of Summer is a romantic comedy featuring Tom Hansen and Summer Finn, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel respectively. Over the course of 95 minutes, we are allowed to explore both characters (characters) and their intimate interdependency (or lack thereof). With divorce rates rising and the ubiquitousness of broken families, young adults struggle to know if love is even possible — which is the main theme of Marc Webb’s sleeper hit. I remember watching when I was fourteen and hating Summer: her personality her dialogue, her clothes, and her. Just all of her.

Jesse Tribble and his video essay, ‘3 Interpretations of Summer’, said it best: ‘As we grow older our perspective changes, and over time we have different interpretations of the same film.’ Revisiting this motion picture on its eleventh anniversary this year mid-pandemic opened many doors for further analysis.

Summers’s dismissiveness towards Tom can be quickly judged as negative and hurtful but as viewers, we need to closely examine wants and needs before we ourselves make rash decisions. I break down why Tom’s opening lines create a veneered prejudice:

This is not a love story.

By employing his (and only his) point-of-view we immediately feel bad for him. We all but fell for this films wholly uncommon trope: the ‘damoiseau in distress.’

Tom’s (romanticism)

Tom is a Romantic — his entire identity is built around hipster movies and songs. And the film doesn’t shy away from this hyperbole: carefully chosen brown palette tones, worn vintage thrift, dreams in parodies of Ingmar Bergman, and a square aspect ratio with rounded corners evoking memories of album covers and monochromatic classics. Even the OST has the sweet summery notes of fling, flirtatiousness, and frisson.

He’s also an architect but works as a low-level writer for a greeting card company. He meets Summer and instantly falls for her. But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. Paraphrasing the 2009 star-studded rom-com: She’s just not that into you.

I’m not really looking for anything serious. Is that okay?

Tom projects his fantasies and desire to find his soulmate onto a girl who, at the start of their relationship, makes it explicitly clear to him that she is not looking for something serious. His agreeability is a catalyst that paves the way for his future pain. For some reason, he convinces himself that he will be the one to change her mind on love, and convince her that soulmates are real. From the minute he meets Summer to the last time they talk, he never sees her in his mind as her own individual person. He creates a fantasy version of her in his head and then feels betrayed when she has needs and wants that don’t align with his. This is a fairly predictable response from someone who considers himself to be the ‘nice guy’; he believes Summer owes him an explanation and a relationship label because he has given her time and love. But ultimately it is not Summer who lets him down, it is his own unrealistic expectations.

After everything he goes through, the idea of Tom as a flawed hero garners feelings of sympathy. After all, he clearly does care about her and he only wants to be loved in return. Despite his flaws, Tom is not an unlikeable character, nor is he entirely in the wrong. But when you really pay attention to the relationship and the dynamics, it is easy to see that Tom acts selfishly from the get-go. He ignores fairly clear signs from Summer that not only is she not particularly happy at the end of their relationship, but she was never looking for her soulmate, to begin with.

I think we should stop seeing each other.
Just like that?
Just like that!

One of the scenic locations from the film taken from Film Oblivion. 356 S Olive St, Los Angeles, CA 90013 (permanently closed, soon to be demolished). There was even a plaque on the bench commemorating the film, which read ‘Tom’s favorite place becomes one of Summer’s too.’ While the bench is still there, the plaque has since been removed.

History is written by the Victors

(500) Days of Summer reminds us that women do not exist to be the fantasies of men, which is an interesting and refreshing perspective from a rom-com. You control the narrative when you’re narrating the story and your first piece of dialogue is one to deceive viewers. It’s his perspective, so we get to see when he’s happy and we get to see when he’s depressed. But there’s another deeper level to this misaligned loyalty we end up manufacturing. We superimpose our perception of love along with our experiences onto this film. And that’s why we like it — it feeds our carnal desires, and in this case to be loved by someone who doesn’t share those same feelings back. Tom’s schpiel is the very string that unravels his entire personality. After watching one of Zoeey’s interviews it was interesting to realize that not only men (or this film’s wronged sex), but women too shared feelings of resentment towards Summer’s character. Rejection is universal. Marc Webb subverted the romantic comedy formula by using a dashing lead with misguided ideas about love that he has to unlearn in some way. And that’s alright, for the most part, expectations never match reality.

The problem is Summer is a Cynic.

Summer’s (cynicism)

(Summer): Let me break it down for you.
(McKenzie): Break it down.
Okay, I... like being on my own.
Relationships are messy, and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it?

Now at first, a cynical attitude can sound pessimistic and maybe even unhappy. Especially coming off the heels of someone so bright and optimistic. But look at how miserable Tom is throughout the movie. Summer wants to be happier by having realistic expectations about her relationships.

You’re happy?
You’re not?
Well, all we do is argue.
That is bullshit!

Zooey Deschanel flawlessly plays a mysterious, upfront, carefree woman that Tom cannot truly have. She is bubbly, whimsical, but above all: she is her own woman. But also she clearly doesn’t know what she wants or at least fails to communicate it effectively. She sowed the seed of the relationship, and in all aspects incepted the thought into Tom’s mind. By not shutting him down at the start and letting everything play out, her instigation included ignoring fairly (and objectively) obvious points of contention. While Tom is flawed in many ways, Summer is no less guilty. For starters, Summer led him on knowing his intentions. Mixed signals don’t even cut it. More importantly, there was a moment in the climax of the relationship when Tom felt a lull, and flat out asked her what they’re doing and she stalled. She wasn’t looking for anything serious but Tom made extremely valid points regarding a particular romp.

Shower sex? You don’t do that with a friend.

After her silence, Tom realized the nature of their relationship and that he was never going to be her one and stormed out. It would’ve taken him some time to get over her, but that would’ve been his out. However, Summer ends up going to his place to further exacerbate the situation. I do believe Summer’s feelings clearly changed along the way. I think she wanted to try to be that person that Tom desired, even though as far as she knew herself, she never could be. She didn’t immediately back out when the red flags waved high, but it wasn’t out of malice or selfishness. So while she had grown cynical at a young age, she still explored her options in what could maybe be seen as a contradictory way. She proclaimed to not want to belong to anyone but also told Tom about her exes. She truly felt and believed that while still actively pursuing different relationships.

After a couple of heartbreaks, people stop looking for every new relationship to be the one. The novelty wears off, and love becomes seasonal. So it’s easier to distance yourself from partners because that feeling may go away. And nobody wants to be trapped. Summer still likes music and pop culture though. It’s what they bond over. It’s just that Summer doesn’t see music as a sign of a soulmate.

I think people sympathize with Summer when they have had enough. And a lot of that starts by realizing all of Tom’s mistakes. He doesn’t listen when Summer tells him upfront that she doesn’t want a serious relationship. He doesn’t listen to his friends when they try to give him realistic advice.

I think it’s kind of like how they say, ‘There’s uh...there’s plenty of other fish in the sea.’
They — they say that.
Well, they’re lying.

He’s stuck in his own dream world, and he never learns his lesson. So he keeps making the same mistakes. So meeting Autumn can be seen as destiny, but it can also illustrate how deluded Tom is. And to this day, Joseph Gordon-Levitt encourages viewers to watch the film from Summer’s perspective, to understand what it’s about.

The older I get, the more sympathy I have for Summer. The film makes it clear that women like Summer spend much of their lives existing as the objects of male fantasy and carry the burden of navigating a minefield of fragile egos, expectations, and the male gaze. That is a lot of emotional labor that these women did not remotely ask for. Moreover, besides the toxic emotional carriage, depending on the guy and the circumstances, that attention can actually be literally, physically dangerous. Author Margaret Atwood in The Robber Bride, explains this feeling of an internal audience as the result of centuries of misogyny,

‘Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’

So that’s it, right? Tom is stubborn and has silly ideas about love, and Summer has it all figured out? Well, not exactly. After a breakup, we start playing the blame game. They did this, and they did that. The non-linear narrative plays an interesting role here because one never really remembers every moment (whether good or bad) in chronological order. You always end up bunching the negatives together to form a single opinion. Rachel tells Tom that she does not believe Summer was ‘the one’ and that his depression is being worsened by the fact that he is only looking back on the positive aspects of their relationship. If we’re self-aware enough, we might admit our own mistakes in a relationship. But unless something goes horribly wrong, most relationships end because of compatibility.

A Breather

Now, an excerpt from Brain Pickings:

‘What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?’

I’ve written about Hannah Arendt before but I thought it would be good to complement this essay with a question her friend, Mary McCarthy, asked her in their correspondence about love.

Maria Popova writes, love invariably does change us, deconditioning our painful pathologies and elevating us toward our highest human potential. It allows us, as Barack Obama so eloquently wrote in his reflections on what his mother taught him about love,

‘to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, [be] finally transformed into something firmer.’

But in the romantic ideal upon which our modern mythos of love is built, the solidity of that togetherness is taken to such an extreme as to render love fragile. When lovers are expected to fuse together so closely and completely, mutuality mutates into a paralyzing codependence — a calcified and rigid firmness that becomes brittle to the possibility of growth. In the most nourishing kind of love, the communion of togetherness coexists with the integrity of individuality, the two aspects always in dynamic and fluid dialogue. The philosopher Martin Heidegger captured this beautifully in his love letters to Arendt:

‘Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.’

This difficult balance of intimacy and independence is what the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores with uncommon insight and poetic precision in a passage from his 1923 masterwork The Prophet.

By way of advice on the secret to a loving and lasting marriage, Gibran offers:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Back to the film.

A Mile in each other’s Shoes

By sympathizing with Tom or Summer, the first two interpretations, the corollary is that the other person is wrong. I don’t think Summer is innocent or a victim but a participant. Compatibility means focusing less on the shortcomings of individuals, and more on their problems together. I can’t say either way that Romanticism or Cynicism is the only way to behave in a relationship. I think this is shown best in the ‘Expectation vs. Reality’ scene. It represents their two philosophies clashing.

There’s no such thing as love. It’s a fantasy.
Well, I think you’re wrong.
Can they exist at the same time?
I don’t know, it depends on how people reconcile their differences.

Somebody has to compromise. But if the biggest issue in a relationship is the definition of that relationship, then probably not.

Well, you’re not the only one who gets a say in this! I do too!
And I say we’re a couple, goddammit!

Intimacy can come in different forms. Sometimes a stranger can feel the closest to you. Or you can share your whole life with someone without wanting to commit to them forever. But as much as Tom idolizes Summer, she knows that. She makes the first move. So both of them enter a relationship knowing that they fundamentally disagree on what their relationship is. And jumping around narratively shows the consequences of that. First, a scene where Summer reassures Tom.

I’m happy. Aren’t you happy?

Then two scenes later, they’re arguing about it.

This is not how you treat your friend!
Kissing in the copy room.
Holding hands in Ikea.
Shower sex! Come on, friends my balls!

For Summer, it’s as simple as:

Because I wanted to.
You just do what you want, don’t you?

Her response that she danced with Tom in the third act because ‘she wanted to’ even today strikes me as casually cruel to the impact she must have known she was having on him. She had a lot of the emotional power in that relationship and she was not at all thoughtful in the way she wielded it. I don’t think there’s nothing to the idea that Summer bears responsibility for Tom’s pain. There aren’t magic words you can say that absolve you of the emotional impact you have on other people. It’s extremely unlikely Summer wasn’t aware of the emotional impact her confused and vacillating attentions were having on Tom.

But why did Tom agree to a casual relationship, other than he really wanted to be with her? Maybe Tom felt like he could change Summer. How many of us have entered a relationship thinking we can love someone enough that they’ll change? Maybe Tom thought Summer could change him. Some people call Summer a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by Nathan Rabin criticizing the film Elizabethtown. He writes,

‘The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.’

It’s funny, because if anything I think Tom was also meant to be the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Summer feels like a more developed character. Tom believes in one-dimensional romantic love, he pines after Summer, he ‘stalks’ her. He’s exhibiting the typical MPDG ideals. All of this brings up another point, though — is Summer without fault in their break-up? No, of course not. Relationships are hardly ever that simple. There are definitely ways she could have handled things better, and there are moments when she is rather blasé about Tom’s desires and feelings. But she is certainly not responsible for Tom’s imagination of what their relationship could have been, and she is not responsible for being his dream girl.

She makes the first move so our sensitive main character doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting, or she’s just out of reach so our guy is constantly chasing her. You can look at Summer as an evasive, promiscuous ingénue who’s in and out of Tom’s life so he can learn a big lesson at the end. Or she’s an independent character who illustrates how possessive Tom is. I think both can be true. Summer motivates Tom to be an architect, and she moves on and gets married.

You never wanted to be anybody’s girlfriend, and now you’re... somebody's wife.
It surprised me too.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand that.

But ultimately, Summer finds what she never knew what she was looking for. What she never believed in or thought she could have. She tried it out with Tom, but I’m sure when she ended things with him she was more cynical than ever. It’s just that her future husband changed everything and she never saw it coming. She could never even imagine that it could work out with anybody, even if she had wanted it to, because of her parents’ divorce. Summer’s marriage may seem like a 180-degree flip, but people change. That’s life. It’s just that Tom wasn’t the one who made it happen like he was hoping. Change can’t be forced. You can’t say all the right things, sing the right songs, or love someone enough. And maybe it hurts to realize the people we love are more compatible with somebody else.

beech ka bichhoo

And the reason the movie clicks is that it’s only from Tom’s perspective. It tricks the viewer into sympathizing with him, then gradually makes the flaws in his personality more apparent while still using him as the protagonist. It forces the viewer to reassess things as they go, making them more likely to draw parallels between Tom and themselves. I think that this is the whole genius of the film. It so accurately describes most people’s reality — rarely black and white. Tom’s loveable and loathable. Summer is too. Their relationship is at times picturesque and at other times a total mess.

TL;DR: So what’s the verdict? Neither positive nor negative, which is what this essay is about. Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Anyone who claims Summer wasn’t sending mixed messages is not being objective, in my opinion. She was aware of his overtly romantic side. She also proves Tom partially right by marrying the first guy she meets out of the blue after their break up. She was willing to commit to a relationship contrary to her claims, just not with him. On the topic of what could have been: if the film had been remade this year, it would have been interesting to see a perspective shift, with the film shot through Summer’s lens, how she handled the situation, and how this entire ordeal affected her.

Hopefully, our interpretations reflect our own growth, not projecting our Romanticism or Cynicism, but finding someone who complements us. And if we can’t, learning to step back and say:

I guess we can just agree to disagree.

The other thing I’ve seen viewers disagree over is what exactly the ending means. The optimistic viewpoint is that Tom has learned and grown as a person and will handle future relationships differently. And when he meets Autumn, he’s finally found the right girl for him who wants the same things as him. Which is all he really wanted.

(500) Days of Summer shows us that love stories are complicated, and the best thing you can take away from it is that if we allow people to be who they really are rather than what we expect them to be, you’ll be much better off. Tom certainly learns this by the end of the film, and his growth as a character is quite compelling and really makes you root for him. And although their relationship was deeply flawed, they both become better people because of it.