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.
“Raising Victor Vargas” (2003)
Sundance has seen plenty of first love/coming-of-age movies over the years, but in the intervening decade since its premiere, few have been as fresh or deeply charming as “Raising Victor Vargas.” Extended from “Five Feet High And Rising,” the NYU grad film of director Peter Sollett, it’s not quite about first love, at least initially: the title character (a hugely charismatic turn from Victor Rasuk, who should be a much bigger star), a Lower East Side teenager living in a cramped apartment with his grandmother, brother and sister, is something of a junior lothario. But as rumors spread that he slept with the unflatteringly named Fat Donna, Victor decides to make good his reputation by seducing the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood, Judy (Judy Marte). But over time, he finds himself falling for her for real. It’s naturalistic, low-key stuff, but funny, warm and sexy with it, and the way that Victor and Judy fumble towards each other awkwardly, exposing their own youthful vulnerabilities to each other, is as memorable a depiction of this sort of thing as we’ve had in the last few years.
“Dirty Dancing” (1987)
A pleasure that’s gone way beyond guilt and almost into the arena of respectability, “Dirty Dancing” is an utterly epochal celebration of first love, first sex, first dance steps (“She can’t even do a basic!”) and, obviously, first time carrying a watermelon. Part of its longevity has to spring from its period setting, because while its oh-so-’80s in outlook, its ’50s milieu of pre-women’s lib, nuclear family values hasn’t dated it the way similar films featuring stonewashed denim and backcombed hair have. But trappings aside, we’d go to bat for it anyway—in its blend of ugly duckling transformation, love story, dance movie and coming-of-age tale, it basically has pretty much everything you could ask for in a teen film and managed the not inconsiderable feat of convincing an entire generation of girls that Patrick Swayze was The World’s Sexiest Man. Baby (Jennifer Grey) and her family go to Kellerman’s resort for a holiday where the naïve but quick-on-the-uptake Baby falls for troubled, bike-riding, leather-wearing self-hating lothario dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze). Fate and fatherly intervention try to prise the two apart, but what does it matter if you’re from opposite side of the tracks when you can simply run, jump and soar over them? No doubt to anyone of the male persuasion or the younger generation, it’s utter balls, but “Dirty Dancing” is a sacrosanct relic of our youth and as such will never, ever be put in a corner.
“My Summer Of Love” (2004)
One of the best British films of the last decade, “My Summer Of Love” manages to do what the best stories of fledgling romance all aspire to; capture it to the extent that you can virtually smell the hormones, while making a simple story into something a little more complex. Pawel Pawlikowsi‘s film focuses on Mona (Natalie Press), a working-class girl whose only surviving family member is her brother Phil (Paddy Considine), an ex-con who’s now had a religious turnaround. Over a long, atypically sunny Yorkshire summer, she meets local posh girl Tamsin (Emily Blunt, in her breakthrough performance), the two becoming fast friends before falling for each other. The relationship between the pair is never sensationalized; it’s the kind of impossibly intense friendship that only exists between teenage girls that can occasionally tip into something more, and both Blunt and the lesser-known but equally talented Press are phenomenal (as is Considine, though that should probably go without saying at this point). It’s lyrical stuff, stunningly shot by DoP Ryszard Lenczewski, but Pawlikoski isn’t afraid to push the story into violence both emotional and physical, and the result is something enormously vital and memorable.
“Say Anything” (1989)
Ostensibly detailing the relationship between “ordinary, everyteen” Lloyd Dobler and the remarkable “brain trapped in the body of a gameshow hostess” Diane Court, really Cameron Crowe’s beautifully observed “Say Anything” knows that at heart it’s all about the extraordinary Dobler (John Cusack). From the moment he resolves to ask Diane out right till that downright Wilder-esque happy/poignant/hopeful ending, we’re repeatedly told of Diane’s brilliance and unattainability (and of course she’s delightfully packaged in Ione Skye) but it’s Dobler with whom we fall in love, slyly alluded to when Lloyd’s female friends, Lili Taylor among them, all grudgingly admit that yeah, they would. Smart, idealistic and wholly goodhearted despite not having the kind of direction that an ambitious parent might want a boyfriend to display, he is basically the sine qua non of the ideal boyfriend—romantic and unashamed of it, and utterly devoted without being sappy. What does Lloyd want to do with his life? He wants to be with Diane, because he’s “really good at it.” Simply one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, sweet and winning enough even now to get us beyond our rankling bitterness that no one, not one person has ever taken the goddamn hint and stood on our lawn with a boom box as a declaration of undying love. Not one.
“Harold and Maude” (1971)
Ah, the first love story of a young man named Harold (Bud Cort), who is obsessed with death (he fakes his own in a series of hilarious phony suicides) and falls in love with a woman very near death named Maude (Ruth Gordon). Hal Ashby‘s odd and affecting “Harold and Maude” has a mood and style all its own (Roger Ebert called it “a movie of attitudes”), with a deadpan wit many filmmakers in the years since have attempted to duplicate but never with the same success. (Wes Anderson practically used it as a blueprint, even borrowing some of the Cat Stevens songs from the soundtrack.) For a movie as singularly ghoulish as “Harold and Maude,” in which Harold sneaks a peek at the death camp number tattooed on Maude’s arm and retrofits his new sports car into a tiny hearse, there’s something hopeful and optimistic about the romance presented therein. Even though the relationship seems doomed from the beginning, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be rewarding and powerful and deeply funny. It’s the first love for Harold and the last love for Maude. “Harold and Maude” strikes a chord with so many people because there are so many powerful notes to identify with and attach yourself to (as well as so many endlessly quotable lines; one of our favorites being Harold’s mom, played by Vivian Pickles, looking around the blood-soaked bathroom and saying, “This is all getting to be too much”). A movie like “Harold and Maude,” as offbeat, political and bizarre as it is, could hardly be made today unless, of course, Wes Anderson directed it.
“The Notebook” (2004)
Known to some as that embarrassing chick flick that Ryan Gosling made before became a worldlessly cool, toothpick-sucking vigilante, and to others as OMG the amazingly amazing story of a first love that survives everything, even senile dementia, “The Notebook” actually fizzled in theaters and really found its following on DVD. It’s so shamelessly manipulative that it’s almost shameful, but there is some gravitas brought by the older contingent of Gena Rowlands and James Garner, while Rachel McAdams and the absurdly youthful-looking Gosling are bursting with so much dewy beauty that it’s hard to stay mad at the film, no matter how cynical one’s heart. The Hallmark-style Nicholas Sparks story centers around prewar teenagers Allie and Noah (sometimes for Big Reveal purposes known as Duke), who fall in love but are separated by the machinations and letter-suppressing tactics of Allie’s snobbish parents. She eventually falls for a nice rich guy (perennial fifth wheel James Marsden), but has to choose between him and Noah when Noah reenters her life. *Spoiler alert* Of course, all of this is a story that the elderly Duke is relating to the ailing, rest-home-confined Allie in later life, and it’s in the final dance of these two, and the unbelievably sad evocation of the terrors of old-age memory loss, that the film actually did kick us in the tear duct. “The Notebook” has become famous for one thing (Gosling, swoon, etc), but its best moments come for quite another reason.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
With a stylized, aesthetically fetishized approach that nowadays attracts as many critics as fans, the insult that detractors are always ready to hurl at any new Wes Anderson movie is “style over substance.” But “Moonrise Kingdom” is a wonderful answer to that criticism—its look and setting (the never-never world-in-microcosm that is the island of New Penzance) are as uniquely Andersonian as anything he’s done, but the heart that beats beneath is universal and strangely insightful, especially for a film about a lisping boy scout who falls in love with a girl dressed as a bird. In fact, the journey of discovery and wonder that is falling in love for the first time, even as children, is perfect territory for Anderson’s ever playful sensibility, mooring his more whimsical flights of fancy to an emotional core that, while never so indulged as to become sickly, does give his style what it sometimes lacks—a certain, sweet purpose. The film swept past us in a delicious swirl of color and quirk and oddball detail, but what remained afterward was the warm heart that Anderson and his two scrupulously deadpan juvenile leads (Jared Gilman and Suzy Hayward) summoned. Here, the painstakingly assembled imagery may give “Moonrise Kingdom” its uniqueness, but the care for the characters and their completely batshit yet deeply-felt circumstances, gives it permanence.
“Heavenly Creatures” (1994
The movie that broke Peter Jackson out of the gore-strewn New Zealand genre ghetto was “Heavenly Creatures,” the true life story of a pair of love struck young girls (Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) who together plot the murder of one of their mothers. It would have been one thing if Jackson would have simply dramatized the relationship (and, later, murder), but he goes beyond that, taking you into the psychological headspace of the girls, who have constructed a vivid fantasy world for themselves. Thanks to Jackson’s mastery of whimsical fantasy elements, and his competence with then-cutting-edge visual effects, he brings to life the sensation that we all get when caught up in a new relationship and the rest of the world becomes a blur. Winslet and Lynskey give note-perfect performances, perfectly blurring the line between heterosexual friendliness and genuine romantic love. By the time the movie reaches its macabre climax, you almost root for the girls to get away with it, not because they’re innocent, but because you want their relationship to continue. It remains one of Jackson’s very best films, the movie that tipped off the world to the fact that he was a very talented filmmaker who would, one day, make the multiplex his playground. First loves can be confusing, transportive whirlwind, which “Heavenly Creatures” beautifully (and violently) shows.
“Wuthering Heights” (1970)
Best known for his 1970s horror films, most people don’t remember that long before Andrea Arnold did her version and before the Ralph Fiennes/Juliette Binoche starrer too, Robert Fuest also directed an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel “Wuthering Heights,” starring Bond-to-be Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff and English television actress Anna Calder-Marshall as Cathy. True to form, Fuest’s version (written by British science fiction author Patrick Tilley) brought out all of the gloom and grit of the tortured love story; a first love wrought with pain and heartbreak amongst the bleak Yorkshire moors. Fuest nixed the novel’s original story framing (and the temptation of using Cathy’s ghost) and starts off with Cathy’s funeral and an impassioned Heathcliff diving into her grave, after which the film, similar to the William Wyler-directed 1939 version (which included a cringey happy ending forced by producer Samuel Goldwyn), focuses on the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff. Thanks to some impassioned acting and on-location shooting, Fuest’s version is among the best at carrying the weight of Cathy and Heathcliff’s melodrama from their dreary childhood to their stormy lifelong love affair, a merciless blend of emotional masochism and sadism. It’s the archetypal irreplaceable first love story, so little wonder it has seen so many filmic incarnations, and amongst them, this neglected version by Fuest certainly ranks right up there.
“Love Story” (1970)
Imagine Edward and Bella’s eyes meeting across a library in a Nicholas Sparks story—that’s probably the only relatable way to come close to summing up the cultural impact of “Love Story.” Already a best-selling novel, the film version (directed by Arthur Hiller) became a phenomenon, the biggest grossing film of 1970, and at the time, the sixth most successful film of all time (adjusted for inflation, it made the equivalent of half a billion dollars in the U.S.). This is sort of remarkable as it’s the fairly simple story of the first—and only—love between wealthy Ivy Leaguer Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’Neal) and working-class second-generation Italian immigrant Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw). The pair meet at college, marry soon after graduation, to the horror of Oliver’s family. But when they’re trying to conceive a child, they discover that Jennifer is terminally ill. One would be quite mistaken to say that “Love Story” was anything like a good movie: caught between 1950s morality and 1960s ideals, it’s cloying, false and often cheap, plus the inherently unikeable O’Neal probably wasn’t the right call for Oliver. But MacGraw is positively glowing, and quite charming with it, and goddammit, the film works—Hiller proving to be just tasteful enough to stop it tipping into complete treacle, and the ending’s undeniably affecting.
“Endless Love” (1981)
Light on recognisable emotion and logic, heavy on skeeze, teen melodrama “Endless Love” from Franco Zeffirelli, is an utterly daft, deliriously mawkish romance that gave an unbelievably gorgeous, angel-faced Brooke Shields her first role after softcore kids’ classic “Blue Lagoon.” Co-starring Martin Hewitt (who was apparently found after an extensive search and then presumably driven back and dropped off right after), the film is about a sexually active 15- and 17-year old couple who are just super duper in love. So much so that when nooky is suspended due to parental interference, he just can’t take it and resolves to impress his way back into her bed by saving the family home from a fire that he himself has set. This foolproof plan goes wrong and he goes to prison for arson. When he gets out he is still TOTES in love with Shields, but unfortunately kind of a little bit sorta you could say causes the death of her father and gets sent down again. This is not a comedy, despite how it sounds. News was it was going to be remade with Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde, though that’s gone a bit quiet and nowadays it’s best known as Tom Cruise‘s very first screen role, as a sniggering jock in shorts in a single scene.
“An Education” (2009)
One aspect of first loves that “An Education” dramatizes well is when you think that the relationship is one thing but it turns out to be something else. Such is the case when young Jenny (Carey Mulligan) falls in love with an older businessman named David (Peter Sarsgaard). Throughout the course of the movie, Jenny learns that David isn’t what he appears to be (first some kind of shady con man, later already married) and the movie plays nicely with how these revelations affect the color of the relationship. The good parts, when she swooned with love, now seem tainted, while all of those people who warned her about her relationship with a much older man, and against rushing into something as serious as a relationship, have their opinions validated in retrospect and to Jenny’s chagrin. “An Education,” based on journalist Lynn Barber‘s memoir and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby, who excels in engaging in all the messy facets of first love and gets a number of awkward little moments wonderfully right, like when Jenny has David over for dinner with her parents (played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). These are the small, delicate speed-bumps on the road to your first love that are rarely depicted, which is maybe why scenes like this resonate. Like any good first love, too, Jenny learns from her experience and it makes her a stronger, more dynamic woman in the end. It might have been her first love, but it certainly won’t be her last, and not even close to her best.
“Jack and Diane” (2011)
First loves can be awkward and messy and largely unexplainable, which goes a long way in making “Jack and Diane,” a somewhat confused muddle of a movie, seem a lot more powerful than it actually is. In the movie, Diane (Juno Temple), who suffers from chronic nosebleeds and a fairly fucked up home life, becomes the object of affection for Jack (Riley Keough), a young girl who is much more comfortable in her sexuality. They stumble through things painfully, even more so because the girls might regularly be transforming into some kind of monster (initially the movie was described as being a werewolf thing, but the ace effects by stop motion pioneers the Quay Brothers are confined to segments that may or may not be dream sequences). So the monster stuff doesn’t really work as part of the larger narrative, especially since the creatures are so muddily photographed. But for a large part of the movie, it doesn’t really matter: When you’re with another person, especially for the first time, you feel as though some of their attributes become incorporated into you, and this sense of transformation is well evoked. Much of the success of “Jack and Diane” rests with the young actresses, who do a terrific job of bringing such a singular experience to life and making it not just a gay movie or a monster movie but a movie that everyone can relate to and feel for.
The only thing better than a first love is a first love expressed… in song! What’s so great about “Grease” is that it basically gives you the entire first love experience in one great number (“Summer Nights“), a pocket version of how high schoolers Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) met over the summer and fell in love. All of that moony-eyed stuff is in that one sequence, but the rest of “Grease” focuses on the follow-up to that romance, when both Danny and Sandy realize they’re attending the same high school the following year. That’s when all the high school dynamics come into play: meeting each others’ friends, school dances, and attempting to maintain a long relationship in school after you’ve met the other person in the sunny bubble that is summer vacation. “Grease” might be a fantasy (it does, after all, end with a flying car straight out of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be truthful. It gets to show the idyllic nature of that purely wonderful first love and then all of the nonsense that falls directly after it. Also, the songs are amazing.
Stylishly adapting Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel, and marking the directorial debut of talented comedian and actor Richard Ayoade (although Ayoade had already achieved noted success with a string of high-profile music videos), “Submarine” was an auspicious moment in the careers of everyone involved. Teen actors Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, in their first major roles, play Oliver Tate and Jordana Bevan, a pair of classmates in drizzly 1980s Wales who must negotiate a myriad of problems both parental and existential as they navigate the turbulent waters of romance. The film rightly drew comparisons with the work of Wes Anderson for its visual quirkiness and precocious youths, but although it also has a huge pile of references to the French New Wave (seriously, check out Richard Brody’s takedown in the New Yorker), Oliver Tate is actually more like an adolescent Woody Allen (another comic turned director) than anything from Truffaut or Godard. Tate is a self-styled Nietzsche-reading intellectual, convinced of his own genius, and, much like Isaac Davis or Alvy Singer, able to move from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again in a heartbeat. It is this vacillatory aspect of young love which “Submarine” (thanks to a superb performance from Roberts) is able to nail down so well; Oliver is suicidal one minute and daydreaming the next. Of course, this doesn’t make it any less real for the hapless protagonist, and we should pity any man who thinks his first romance was any less ridiculous, any less anguished or any less po-faced than the star-crossed lovers at the heart of this assured and big-hearted debut.
“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