Jim and Pam, Edward and Bella, Jack and Rose. Romantic films have always enthralled us. For singletons, they provide comfort and allow us to live vicariously through the characters. For couples, they are the start of a great date night. Some films have beautifully captured the intricacies of love. Others…not so much. Unfortunately, romanticising love has led the media to promote some very harmful ideas about what love is and what it should be. 

True Love

These films got it right. Well, at least some part of it is right.

La La Land

The 2016 Oscar Best Picture. Oops, not really. Perhaps nothing better parallels the message of the film than the “unexpected twist” of being mistakenly announced as the Best Picture and then realising that Moonlight won instead. La La Land could have been an above-average romance musical. Mia and Sebastian meet. At first, they don’t like one another, but then they do and they chase their dreams together! And then things start to get rough but with a make-up kiss, everything is fine again! You know, like in everyday life! 

Then of course comes the plot twist at the very end. The heart-wrenching plot twist. Until now, we think they end up together, and we even get a beautiful montage of what life could be. However, at the end of the movie, Mia, now a major movie star, goes to a jazz bar with her husband (who, surprise surprise, is not Sebastian). Sebastian plays the movie’s main theme on the piano. They don’t even share a word, and she leaves. We are not given an explanation. We do get the look. As she is leaving, she turns back and they exchange a look. A look that says I’m sorry, thank you, I love you, all in one.  All of that is wonderfully portrayed by two amazing actors. 

Love is complicated. Sometimes, it’s the right person, wrong time. Sometimes, it’s the wrong person, but not that wrong. That feeling hurts, knowing that what you had was beautiful but the two of you were just not meant to be. And that’s okay. La La Land gives us solace and represents this in its own heartbreaking fashion. 

500 Days of Summer

“This is not a love story. It’s a story about love.” Tom, the main character, was right all along. This rom-com flips the genre on its head. The couple does not end up together. Summer is not the one for Tom. For most of the movie, Tom cannot accept this. He imagines Summer as his ideal girl. We repeatedly see split-screen scenes where his expectations are contrasted with reality, highlighting that Summer is not who he thinks she is. He even gets called out by his sister when she says, “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” 

Tom has fallen into the trap that many of us have fallen into at least once in our lives. Just because she’s pretty and likes the same band you do does not mean she’s the one. We tend to fall head over heels with an idealised version of our partners. We ignore red flags or even just slight disagreements that should have been signs that they are not the one.

Heed (500) Days of Summer’s advice. Take off the rose-tinted glasses and take a real look at your relationship. 

Don Jon

Hey! Two Joseph-Gordon Levitt films! In this one, he plays a porn addict. (Sorry, what?) Yes. (And this movie shows a healthy relationship?) Yep. See, in the movie John’s addiction to porn is contrasted with Barbara’s addiction to romantic movies. John is a sex addict, using porn and women only to boost his ego and feel a temporary high. While he sees her only as a way to satisfy his needs, so does she in a way. She clearly does not love the real him, consistently asking him to change core parts of his identity to fit her mold of the ideal man.

This movie shows that there is more than one way to objectify your partner. Viewing them as a way to further your status or live out your fantasies instead of developing a healthy relationship. In the end, John is ironically more mature than Barbara, having grown out of his addiction and able to find a partner he loves truly. While most of us probably aren’t like John, maybe in more subtle but more insidious ways we are like Barbara, wishing for our version of the ideal relationship and twisting our partners to fit that image. Maybe Don Jon is the perfect film to call you (or your partner ) out on your own addiction. 

Love, not actually

High School Musical 2

Few people expected the High School Musical series to cover the nuance of relationships and love. On the outset, they are examples of a cute teen musical romance about the highs and lows of juggling life in high school. However, the first was a cute story about finding your passion and “breaking free” from the “status quo”. The third is a heartfelt goodbye to high school, and its theme of saying goodbye whilst still holding onto the friends you make in your heart, which rings true for any transition to any new stage in life. 

High School Musical 2 has two warring factions. Sharpay sets up basketball scholarship offers for Troy and all he has to do is perform in a talent show with her. Gabriella is an overly attached girlfriend who wants to spend the summer with Troy, and ends up breaking his heart. Let me clarify. SHARPAY is the villain? Whilst the clingy one who can’t get over the fact that they haven’t been on a proper date in the summer is the love interest? EXCUSE ME?

Talk about teaching kids how to prioritise themselves and their future and not fleeting teenage romances. It’s not fabulous at all.

The Office (US)

Yes, the first couple listed in this article is easily the most problematic one. Just to clarify, Jim and Pam developed feelings for one another when Pam was engaged to a fellow coworker. He kisses her while she is engaged. She makes herself emotionally open to Jim, again, while she is engaged. She tells him she loves him while he is in another relationship, saying he is why she called off her own wedding. Okay, rocky start. This hangs over Jim’s head the whole of their relationship, all the way to the final season, where Jim quits his job to be with Pam because she is finding comfort in Brian, a member of the film crew. 

Both of them give up large parts of their identity to be with one another. Pam gives up art. Jim was bored of Scranton, wanted to leave, and ended up leaving. But of course, he gives it all up for Pam. 

It is true that every relationship needs sacrifice, and some may not have started out in the most ethical or clean way. Yet this level of sacrifice and problematic baggage in a relationship needs to, at least, be addressed and discussed seriously, something Jim and Pam never do.

For a better, more supportive rom-com couple, please refer to Schmidt and Cece from New Girl, thank you very much.

All in all, films are just like us. Sometimes we get it wrong in love. Sometimes really, terribly, traumatically wrong. However, when a film gets it right, it is oh-so sweet and lovely, and it fills your heart and soul with warmth.