The subversive romance of “500 Days of Summer”

You can tell a lot about a person by what kinds of movies, music and books they like. However, their opinions and perceptions about a piece of media can tell you so much more. Some movies test existing perspectives and have the ability to reveal things and even change existing ideas and opinions. “500 Days of Summer” is one of those films. 

It isn’t a love story, and to call it a rom-com would be a stretch because it was intended to be a subversion of the genre. The most accurate explanation is more of a coming of age story –– for a 20 year old man. It is about two people with a lot in common and a lot of chemistry who are fundamentally different and, depending on your perspective, not meant to be. However, this movie is often misunderstood by first time viewers for a variety of reasons. 

To briefly summarize (with spoilers)

This is a boy-meets-girl story based on the 500 days that our main character Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) knows Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Unlike most romantic movies, it is told out of chronological order, meaning the audience is transported around those 500 days throughout the film. It begins with their breakup and is told in scenes of reflection on selected parts of their entire relationship. 

Tom works at a greeting card company and meets Summer when she starts working there as a receptionist. He falls in love with her before their first conversation, thinking that she’s “the one.” They form a close friendship and bond over their shared love of the band known as The Smiths. We watch them toe the line of dating, even though she is clear about not wanting to be in a relationship, yet they go on dates to IKEA and spend a lot of time together. But they begin to fall apart as it grows more obvious they have completely different ideas about fundamental things; they never agree on whether or not they are a couple, or if true love and soulmates really exist. To understand what went wrong, it helps to understand who they are as people.  

Movie screencap. Credit: Marc Webb

Let’s start with our main character: Tom. He is a hopeless romantic whose perceptions of love, women and life in general were shaped by movies and music. From the beginning he seems like the one we should root for. If you are a romantic person, I guarantee he will have your sympathy, at least on the first watch. He is a talented artist and went to school for architecture, but works as a writer for a card company. His life seems pretty simple and comfortable, especially before he meets Summer. All of his fantasies and expectations for women are projected onto her, most of them before they even spoke. 

Summer is his dream girl. She is described as 5’1, 120 pounds, with dark hair and blue eyes. The interesting thing is that we don’t get to know her intimately as a character besides her most superficial qualities and a few random details. All we really know is that she isn’t too into the idea of love or relationships after watching her parent’s marriage end in divorce as a young girl. She is “free and independent” and lives her life by her own terms. She says that Ringo Starr is her favorite Beatle simply because nobody else does, and she’s not afraid to pour her heart out at a karaoke bar. 

The reason we don’t know a lot about Summer is because of the perspective of the film. Tom is the main character, therefore the viewer is constricted by his limited perception of her. It is his narrative, so there isn’t a scene without him and every character is portrayed as he sees them. 

This is especially obvious with Summer. There is a narrator that appears periodically throughout the film and reveals some of his inner thoughts and a little bit of information about other characters, but is again limited to his perspective. No relationship is described objectively. 

What makes this movie so unique is that it reveals a lot about what kind of preconceived notions the viewer has about love and relationships. This movie changes each time I watch it. The first time was years ago, and I sympathized with Tom and didn’t understand why Summer didn’t want to be with him and why she was so confusing. 

When watching it again recently, I paid more attention to the sides of the story I was being presented with and whose perspective this relationship came from. Then, I began to understand why Summer acted the way she did, and how Tom doesn’t even really know her as a complete human. He sees her as a pretty, enigmatic girl with big eyes and no wants or needs. It is easy to see that Tom never actually listened to Summer, even when she was telling him intimate and important details about herself. Their entire relationship was about him. 

However, I don’t think that Tom is entirely at fault, and neither is Summer. No matter whose side you relate to more, this movie does a good job of showing the flaws of these two people and the flaws of relationships in general. Their fundamental issue is that both of them have very different ideas of what love is: Tom thinks that everything is like it is in the movies and believes that Summer is his soulmate, and Summer thinks that love is a childhood fantasy—because for her, it was. Although they have a lot in common, and they are attracted to each other, that isn’t enough to make them a good fit. 

Even though this film is largely focused on Tom and Summer, some of its most selling moments come from side characters. Tom’s little sister who is wise beyond her years gives him relationship advice throughout the movie. In one scene they are playing tennis on a Wii, and Tom is gushing about how Summer likes The Smiths and banana fish, just like him. She says, “Just ‘cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do, doesn’t make her your soulmate.” That seems to sum up the entire narrative of this movie and the important lesson that we hope Tom learns by the end. 

My absolute favorite line comes from Tom’s friend Paul. Throughout the movie he gives dubious advice but is overall a good friend. Tom doesn’t think that Paul is qualified to give advice because he has had the same girlfriend, Robin, since middle school. When talking about her, he explains in an interview-like style about his dream girl and how she might look a little different, have different hair or be more into sports. But then he says, “Truthfully, Robin is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.” After that scene we see Tom staring right into the camera, with nothing to say. 

Everyone knows that love is messy and involves a lot of miscommunication and misunderstandings. We deal with them so often in real life that we want things to be perfect in the movies. This movie was intended to be a subversion of the romantic movies that we are used to seeing, although in 2009, this romantic narrative was still the majority of what audiences were exposed to. 

Credit: Marc Webb

Now there are plenty of romantic movies that aim to disrupt the common rom-com story, but back then it was much more rare. That’s one reason I think this movie is often misunderstood. If you go into this movie expecting it to be like most romance movies, it will be easy to catch on to the romantic-wins-over-cynic narrative in the film. The ending might be unexpected, but otherwise it just seems like an offbeat rom-com between a love-struck guy and a quirky girl. However, it requires more attention to detail and understanding of the characters to really see where the writers were coming from. 

Some people argue that the reason the deeper impacts go over the heads of many viewers is because they were too subtle, and some of the aspects might play into the cliche too much. I can see how that argument has some merit. The movie ends with Summer falling in love and getting engaged to a man that she met in a deli, and Tom meets another girl at a job interview, who is aptly named Autumn. But I think that perception is too simple. Since this movie intended to simultaneously subvert and validate our expectations for romantic narratives and love stories, it makes sense for us to be confused, especially since we want it to be perfectly coherent. 

To me, this movie is about two people who don’t agree on what love is, and who aren’t really “meant to be,” whatever that might mean. Sure, Tom was wrong to expect Summer to be the girl of his fantasies. He doesn’t know her and he doesn’t even really try to.  And Summer was too naive to know better than to do couple-y things with a guy who is obviously in love with her and not expect him to want to be in a relationship. 

This film focuses on the growth of both of these characters, especially Tom. We hope that he lets a good dose of reality keep his romanticism in check, and we see Summer open herself to falling in love and marrying someone else. Tom thought Summer was “the one” but she didn’t feel the same way. He learned that he couldn’t force himself to be the love of Summer’s life, even if he was certain she was the love of his. 

The best thing about this film is that it is so authentically human. It doesn’t matter if Summer was right with her cynicism or if Tom’s romanticism is what love should be. The reason there are so many different ways of interpreting this movie is because it is so well written that these characters feel like real people. And real people don’t say the right thing at the right time, know how to set boundaries or know when to just stop and listen. We can relate to them both based on our own experiences. Although this film seems complex and might be misunderstood, it is definitely worth the watch.

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