I had been thinking a lot in the week prior to screening Endless Love about Brene Brown’s claim (in Men, Women, and Worthiness) that empathy is about connecting with an emotion, not connecting with an experience. I think she is right, and I think that distinction is helpful in explaining why we sometimes like movies that deep down we know are bad. Endless Love is a bad movie, and, yeah, I pretty much liked it.
I couldn’t really connect with the rich family-poor family conflicts or the borderline incestuous protectiveness that Hugh Butterfield (Bruce Greenwood) felt for his daughter, Jade (Gabriella Wilde). I couldn’t connect with the high schoolers that all looked like models and were able to choreograph complete dance numbers in thirty minutes or less. I’ve never had a parent tell me that my love “inspired” her, but on the flip side neither have I ever had a restraining order filed against me by the family of someone I was dating.
But I do know what it feels like to be out-of-my-mind crazy in love, misjudged, unappreciated. I certainly could connect with the loneliness of feeling invisible to one’s peers despite achievements, and the intoxication of being noticed by someone attractive and thinking, wishing, hoping, that the long journey out of desert solitude might be approaching an end. None of these characters looked like they’d seen the inside of a high-school in the last half decade, but their emotions were recognizable even if my own memories of those emotions were decades old.
There is genuine chemistry between the young lovers. Alex Pettyfer is handsome and hunky but most importantly he conveys that emotional openness that is rare enough among high-school boys that one could easily see how it would make him stand out to someone like Jade. Gabriella Wilde probably has the harder of the two roles as she has to combine virginal innocence with catnip coquettishness. She’s like a younger, blonder, less inhibited version of Keri Russell in Felicity. If there were even a hint of self-consciousness in Jade as she hiked her skirt to show David (Pettyfer) some thigh, the film wouldn’t work. It’s dependent on nobody winking when the speeches start about the couple having a special kind of connection, a recognizably different sort of emotional bond that doesn’t obliterate pure lust but transcends without obliterating it.
The truth is, we don’t much believe in romances at the movies any more. Romantic comedies are more crude and sophomoric than genuinely funny, and movies about adult relationships imply that a boy and a girl (or a man and a woman) falling in love is an open invitation to misery. Love exists, if at all, only outside of marriage, says movies like Therese, A Promise, Arthur Newman, and Before Midnight. As a result, the notion of a uniquely suitable partner, a “soul mate” is just as suspect at the movies as that of a mutually committed, mutually satisfying relationship. The most celebrated relationship at the movies last year was between a man and his phone.
So while I can’t exactly call Jade and David role models or even realistic–like so many movies that idolize love the film trivializes the emotional and spiritual impact of sex–I couldn’t help rooting for them in spite of myself. Endless Love didn’t make me want to run out and drag other people to see it on opening weekend, but it did make me want to find some young lovers somewhere and bless them in their old-fashioned attempts to find joy.
Perhaps as well there may be some sort of generational survivor’s guilt in the recalibration of the romance movie as needing to be populated by teenage characters. I don’t have kids of my own, but I do belong to a generation keenly aware that financially, environmentally, and politically, the rising generation is inheriting a world even more impoverished than what we grew up with. When all the Moral Monday protests in the world don’t seem to make much of an impact, their is something seductive in the escapist fantasy that the younger generation is better off and happier because the intensity of their love is more precious and powerful than all the riches their parents have chased for so long.
Or maybe there is just aesthetic pleasure in looking at pretty people. Pettyfer and Wilde are very, very pretty indeed. So too is Joely Richardson who, as Jade’s mom, is a living portrait for her daughter of what it looks like when the fire has gone out but not yet cooled. It shouldn’t be hard for Jade to pick love over money when she is confronted daily with how unhappy her dad makes everyone, not just her, and maybe a tougher movie would import a few Mansfield Park or Howards End reminders of just how drab poverty can be, even when love is illuminating it.
There, you see? Every time I try to end with praise, I slip back into critic mode and level some jab at the film. I think I have sufficiently insulated my affection for this piece of fluff from being misunderstood as serious esteem. In case I haven’t, I’ll say it one more time–this isn’t a particularly good movie in any meaningful sense of the word.
But I enjoyed it.