What 500 Days of Summer still gets right about heartbreak 10 years later

“Most days of the year are unremarkable. They begin and they end with no lasting memories made in between. Most days have no impact on the course of a life. Then someone comes along and changes that.”

Released a whopping 10 years ago and hailed as a rom-com for cynics, 500 Days of Summer is a reminder that real life doesn’t always happen the way we want it to. Viewers are told from the very beginning to brace themselves for a not-so-happy ending as the narrator reveals this is not a love story.

…Or is it?

Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is “a woman of average height and weight, and slightly above average shoe size” who starts her new role as an assistant at the New Hampshire Greeting Card Company. Hopeless romantic and aspiring architect-turned-greeting card writer, Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), becomes infatuated with Summer after a fleeting conversation about The Smiths in the office elevator. And so begins a rollercoaster ride of subtle tenderness, heated fights, and heart-rending disconnectedness.

If there were ever a lesson never to date your coworkers, this is it.

Summer, a skeptic of romance, isn’t sure love even exists. “I’ve been in relationships and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it,” she says. “There’s no such thing as love. It’s a fantasy.”

Tom disagrees. “I think you know when you feel it.”

Inevitably, a relationship between the two ensues—Summer making clear she’s “not looking for anything serious right now.” Tom insists that he’s okay with this casual arrangement, but as his feelings continue to grow, he is faced with a dilemma: confirm their relationship status and risk putting unnecessary pressure on a good thing, or hold his tongue. In this case, he opts for the latter in dialogue that feels strangely familiar.

Tom: “Summer I’ve gotta ask you something. What are we doing?”
Summer: “I thought we were going to the movies?”
T: “I mean, like, what is going on here? With us?”
S: “I don’t know. Who cares? I’m happy aren’t you happy?”
T: “Yeah.”
S: “Good.”

It’s fair to say you’ve dodged a bullet if you’ve never been on the receiving end of this question in a modern-day relationship. Being the first to declare your feelings is unnerving at the best of times—never mind in the honeymoon period. As someone that catches feelings easily, I empathize with Tom, a clearly non-casual guy, trying his best to move the relationship forward.

The great thing about this movie is that, depending on the viewer’s own personal experiences, it can be appreciated in myriad ways—and in this instance, you may find yourself wondering, “If he’s got a good thing going, then why is he so desperate to change that?”

But often, we hold our new partners to the same standards as our previous ones from unsuccessful relationships, creating an urge for immediate answers and leading us to put a label on things far too quickly. Pushing a discussion may not be the “cool” thing to do, but falling for someone without properly committing can start to feel a little terrifying. If you are already behaving like a couple, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask what’s going on. That way, if the person can’t give you what you need, then you have the autonomy to decide how to move forward.

Drinking at a bar, Summer has the misfortune of attracting the attention of the local sleazebag. After Summer politely declines his advances, said sleazebag walks away—but not before questioning Tom’s worthiness. Cue ape-like chest-puffing from Tom and itching fists. Summer expresses her disappointment in Tom’s actions, to which he responds, “I just got my ass kicked for you.” Summer replies, “Oh really was that for me? Well, next time, don’t, ‘cause I don’t need your help.”

She continues making her frustration clear and hints, once more, about the pair being nothing more than friends:

T: “Kissing in the copy room, holding hands in Ikea. Shower sex? Come on, ‘friend’ my balls!”
S: “I like you, Tom. I just don’t want a relationship.”
T: “Well you’re not the only one that gets a say in this. I do too and I say we’re a couple goddammit.”

Could this be the most authentic representation of modern relationships to exist on screen?

T: “I just need some consistency. I need to know that you’re not gonna wake up in the morning and feel differently.”
S: “I can’t give you that. Nobody can.”

Years of watching movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Notting Hill had consumed my mind with the idea that things will always work out, despite the odds.

As a teenage girl, there were some things that didn’t bear questioning—and finding the perfect gent with Heath Ledger’s face and Hugh Grant’s manners was one of them. But as many of us watch our parents divorce and our own adult relationships fail, we’re forced to deal with this realization that life, sadly, isn’t a fairy tale. Like Tom, as I grew up, I went from being an optimist, to a pessimist, to a realist. Breakups happen and they suck. But how you cope in the aftermath entirely depends on your perspective. Some viewers may blame Summer for leading him on—yet the real-life Tom Hansen, aka Joseph Gordon-Levitt, thinks they’re wrong.

“The attitude of ‘he wants you so bad’ seems attractive to some women and men. But I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is,” Gordon-Levitt told Playboy in 2012. “He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life. A lot of boys and girls think their lives will have meaning if they find a partner who wants nothing else in life but them. That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.”

You can’t deny, the guy talks sense. Whether you’re team Tom or Summer, if this movie teaches us anything, it’s that heartbreak subsides. With a new outlook on life, a breakup could even help shape our lives for the better. Tom rediscovers his passion for architecture—and then, something unexpected happens.

“My name’s Tom.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Autumn.”

Fate probably doesn’t exist. Our expectations rarely align with reality. But the universe certainly works in mysterious ways.

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