“The Spectacular Now” is a beautiful, subtle and authentic film about two teenagers who wouldn’t seem to belong together; not only do they fall for each other, they actually make each other better. For the most part. Miles Teller as the senior-class party boy and Shailene Woodley as his studious and secure opposite have an effortless chemistry, and director James Ponsoldt lets their romance unfurl in charming, organic fashion.
The indie drama is so good, it got me thinking about some of my favorite movies over the years about first love. Here are five — hopefully, you’ll fall for them, too.
_ “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012): Wes Anderson’s tale of first love, filled with recognizable adolescent angst and naive fumblings, feels at once deeply personal (and, indeed, it was inspired by a boyhood crush of his own) and universally relatable. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are adorable together as Sam and Suzy, 12-year-old loners who find each other, pack up their treasured belongings and run away together at the end of summer 1965. Trouble is, they have nowhere to go — they live on the insular New England island of New Penzance, a rocky, rugged place with no paved roads and only one phone — and a storm of epic proportions is on its way. This is Anderson’s sweetest and most sincere live-action movie since the one that remains his best, 1998’s “Rushmore.”
_ “A Little Romance” (1979): I have such fond memories of watching this movie as a little girl. A radiantly beautiful young Diane Lane stars as a 13-year-old American living with her parents in Paris. Thelonious Bernard is the impish French boy who quotes classic films as sweeps her off her feet. Laurence Olivier is adorably daffy as the eccentric gentleman who spins wild tales and watches over them as they travel to Venice and fall in love. One of the last films from George Roy Hill, the Oscar-winning director of “The Sting,” “A Little Romance” has an irresistible charm and an effervescent sense of possibility.
_ “My Summer of Love” (2004): Emily Blunt made her film debut as a beautiful and beguiling teenage temptress who becomes emotionally entangled with another young woman in ways that are romantic, then intense, and ultimately unhealthy. Blunt stars as boarding-school reject Tamsin; Natalie Press plays the impressionable and far less sophisticated Mona. They spend their afternoons in the English countryside conspiratorially smoking cigarettes and drinking red wine on the tennis court before moving on to make-out sessions and magic mushrooms. Director Pawel Pawlikowski tells their story with understated, artful intimacy.
_ “Valley Girl” (1983): A personal favorite of mine since I, like, totally grew up in the Valley in the 1980s. Martha Coolidge’s satirical take on “Romeo and Juliet” finds its star-crossed lovers living on opposite sides of the hill in Los Angeles, but they may as well be from different planets. Fashionable, sheltered Julie (Deborah Foreman) rules the high school halls and the shopping malls. Punk-rock Randy (Nicolas Cage), a Hollywood rebel, becomes smitten with her at a party. On paper, they make no sense together, but the way their romance blossoms in giddy and goofy ways is infectious. It is, dare I say, awesome to the max.
_ “Badlands” (1973): Maybe not the most romantic example because, you know, it’s about a 25-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl who go on a killing spree. But they love each other, damnit — and that forbidden love is what prompts their homicidal run. Martin Sheen is smoldering, rebellious and dangerous as the James Deam wannabe Kit; Sissy Spacek is fresh-faced, vibrant and malleable as baton-twirler Holly. Terrence Malick planted the seeds in this debut feature for the aesthetic that would become his oft-imitated signature: dreamlke visuals, poetic voiceover and a lyrical sense of narrative.
An article in today’s New York Times Sunday Styles section got me thinking about the indie-film phenomenon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: a young woman who’s beautiful and quirky and perfect in the eyes of the lovestruck, mixed-up guy who falls for her. She’s been prominent in the past decade or so, but you could trace her origins to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” or Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment” before that.
One of my favorite things I did at the AP was my weekly Five Most list, so I’m happy to bring it back here, with a look at five quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girls:
_ Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown” (2005): The character who inspired then-A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin (now of The Dissolve) to coin the phrase. (I do hope he’s collecting some sort of royalties for it — it was damned clever.) As chatty flight attendant Claire, who drags Orlando Bloom’s character out of his fog following his father’s death, Dunst says just the right, poignant thing at just the right time and has excellent taste in music, as evidenced by her elaborate mix tapes. (She is a Cameron Crowe creation, after all.) An all-night phone call leads to a romantic meeting at sunrise. Their connection is cosmic; she’s a stranger but she understands him in a way no one else ever has. People like this only exist in the movies.
_ Natalie Portman in “Garden State” (2004): I will admit that I loved this movie when it came out; in retrospect, I realize it’s a better soundtrack than a film. But right smack in the center of it is a goofy, perky Portman who — like Dunst in “Elizabethtown” — lifts Zach Braff’s character from his depression after the death of his mother. Portman’s Sam is a self-professed compulsive liar who meets cute with Braff’s character in a doctor’s office waiting room and becomes his impromptu sidekick. She dances and makes silly noises when she’s feeling uncomfortable, for example. Compared to her stilted performances in the “Star Wars” prequels, though, her effervescence here was a joy to watch.
_ Zooey Deschanel in … many things, but especially “(500) Days of Summer” (2009): This type of figure is Deschanel’s bread and butter. As the young woman of the film’s title, she’s the object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s obsession, then his affection, and ultimately his depression. Deschanel’s Summer, an assistant at a greeting-card company, wears adorably ladylike vintage dresses and gamely plays house inside an Ikea store. The fact that she’s new to Los Angeles makes her seem even more fascinating; she represents endless promise. And because the memory of their relationship is told completely through Gordon-Levitt’s perspective, it’s more than a little romanticized.
_ Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004): Winslet’s character especially fits the description, seeming even more magical because we see her entirely through the melancholy memory of Jim Carrey as he tries to erase her from his mind. She’s got wildly multi-hued hair, an eclectic wardrobe and a disarmingly direct manner. She works in a bookstore. She even has a pleasingly old-fashioned name: Clementine. But in Winslet’s hands, as written by the brilliant and imaginative Charlie Kaufman, she feels like a complex person rather than just an oddball type.
_ Charlyne Yi in “Paper Heart” (2009): Yi plays a version of herself in this documentary-fiction hybrid in which she travels the country interviewing regular people about being in love. Along the way, she “falls for” Michael Cera, playing a version of himself. (They may or may not actually have dated in real life.) The writer, actress and standup comic is a nerd goddess: goofy, tomboyish, unapologetically awkward with an off-kilter sense of humor — and the fact that she’s so self-deprecating and seems so earnest in her quest to find the meaning of true love makes her pretty hard to resist.