The older I get, the less I like hindsight. I know that since we’re only the sum of all of our past selves, that self-reflection is healthy and so on. However, there are moments when I think back to some of the things I wore or liked or did or believed when I was younger and I vow to never reminisce again. When I think back, especially to high school, I’m forced to recognize that I was probably a pretty fucking unbearable teenager. This is a relatively easy thing to forgive — I think I’d be hard-pressed to find an adult who’s especially fond of their high school self — but sometimes looking back genuinely makes me mad.
My coming of age was a clumsy one. I was frequently so wrapped up in my fixation of the month that I forgot to develop any sense of self-awareness. My conceptions of life and love and all of the Big Stuff were more heavily informed by those fixations than by my actual experiences. I loved the ideas of things more than I could possibly love them for what they actually were.
One of those fixations— and a foundational text for my understanding of love — was “(500) Days of Summer,” a rom-com but not a love story. It warns us of this right from the beginning by way of a golden-throated, omniscient narrator (Richard McGonagle, “Regular Show”) whose matter-of-fact commentary bookends the film. As impressionable as I was, I don’t know if I was ever really convinced that it was a love story, if only for the simple fact that the couple at its center don’t end up together. My biggest takeaway, though, was always the protagonist Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Mr. Corman”) romanticism: his belief in fate and certain absolute truths about love. I never registered that those things were doomed to keep him from learning anything substantive about himself or how he conducts himself in relationships. Rather, I figured they were things to strive for and emulate.
I can’t be too hard on my younger self for that, though; “(500) Days of Summer” is sort of a deceptive film. Its suggestions of Tom’s inalterable idealism-to-a-fault are subtle enough to go over the heads of people more intelligent than 17-year-old me. In her defense, though, the ending is played like a happy one. When the 500 days that revolve around the titular Summer (Zooey Deschanel, “New Girl”) inevitably come to a close, he meets a woman, aptly named Autumn (Minka Kelly, “Titans”), and a recurring intertitle marking the days ticks from “500” back down to “1.” The art surrounding the number, a gray and gloomy landscape featuring a barren tree, turns gold and hopeful as the sun comes out. The tree flowers, the flowers bloom; to top it off, a happy British indie rock song plays over it. Although it’s clear to me now that there’s something exasperating, if not a little bit insidious, about the indication that all of Tom’s self-inflicted heartache and steadfast refusal to accept accountability is bound to repeat itself, and that he’s learned absolutely nothing, the sheer amount of serotonin the opening riff of “She’s Got You High” gives is more than enough to make me look past all of that.
That’s the thing about this movie: the serotonin that its most basic, tangible aspects provide. As a 17-year-old wannabe hipster whose goals included making sure their iTunes library contained as many unrecognizable artist names as possible and procuring a Crosley record player, all I needed to love “(500) Days of Summer” back then was its vibes. At various points, Tom and Summer go to a record store on a date, where they argue about who the best Beatle is (or, more accurately, why it’s not Ringo); they attend a sun-soaked summer wedding somewhere in California wine country; they watch old black-and-white foreign films together. There’s a goddamn French-language song in the soundtrack: it’s a teenaged hipster’s platonic ideal of a movie. Whatever understated, more mature themes or lessons the movie tries to impart were always bound to go right over my little head.
When you’re a teenager, you’re already a little pretentious and your conception of romantic love has been mostly, if not entirely, informed by pop culture. It’s almost impossible to interpret “(500) Days of Summer” negatively. Of course, there is a period of time when Tom loses faith in all of his deeply-held convictions, but his impeccably soundtracked meeting with Autumn suggests that he really was right all along. The person I was at 17 wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I wanted so badly to feel like I had a grasp on what love was or meant, and I gravitated toward media that seemed like it had a clue. I wanted to look at someone and just know, and then I wanted it to be earth-shattering; I wanted it to be insurmountable. Just like Tom, I wanted it to be what all the Hallmark cards and movies and pop songs promised it would be. In taking the movie at face value, I was using it to validate all of my unrealistic and uninformed expectations about love.
Since it came out in 2009, the film has been subject to multiple reevaluations: it was always trying to point to the perils of hopeless romanticism, Summer is an early blueprint for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Tom is actually a massive asshole and so on. I’ve seen some commenters point to a line from Rachel (Chloë Grace Moretz, “Tom and Jerry”), Tom’s younger half-sister, as the key to unlocking its deeper themes: “Just ‘cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap as you, that doesn’t make her your soulmate, Tom.” She’s not wrong, and neither are the critics who point to her words, but for me, there’s a different, perhaps even more understated, hint that gets to the heart of The Tom Problem.
In his introduction, the narrator explains that Tom’s belief in “the one” stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie “The Graduate.” Later, during a montage of Tom and Summer’s last date before she breaks up with him, they watch that very movie together in a theater. (In what I’ve come to realize is kind of a genius, cheeky little artistic choice, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends” plays over the scene.) They watch the smiles slide off of Ben and Elaine’s faces as the two sit at the back of the bus, their initial exhilaration making way for uncertainty. Summer is crying, and Tom looks over at her, puzzled. He’s still misreading the movie. He didn’t get it then, he doesn’t now and he probably never will.
Growing up, then, is realizing that I was once Tom, but I was 17; instead of Joy Division, I had The 1975; instead of “The Graduate,” I had “(500) Days of Summer.” Growing up is realizing that although Tom is fated to make the same mistakes in perpetuity, I don’t have to — and, in many ways, can’t — do the same.
None of this is to say that I’ve become completely bitter and jaded about love since learning that Tom’s point of view is unhealthy. That’s another thing about growing up — realism isn’t the opposite of optimism. I still love love, to a degree that could even be construed as over-optimistic. The very idea of it still fascinates me to no end, and there’s little I want more than to feel it myself. This is all an unavoidable product of the age I gained self-awareness; I was old enough to have my own thoughts but young enough to be incredibly susceptible to accepting the surface-level lessons of persuasive movies as truth.
But it is to say that even now, I have to keep dismantling the little Tom-esque impulses that still exist at the back of my brain, impulses which want me to idealize every possible romantic interest who comes into my life, put them on a pedestal and then get angry when they don’t live up to my expectations. They want me to fixate on someone and convince me that my affection is entitled to being returned. Actively rejecting these things isn’t a rejection of a rosy view of love, but rather a rejection of a selfish one. Hindsight, as much as I might dislike it, forces me to recognize some of the destructive things I learned in my most formative years, and it helps me unmake them.
Growing up is realizing that “(500) Days of Summer” is not a love story; it’s a cautionary tale. Tom is a faulty protagonist because the next step in his journey is supposed to be Transformation, but he never gets there. He never changes, but I will, and I do.
Senior Arts Editor Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.