Say Anything… (1989) is a weird movie, right? Even those familiar with John Hughes’ seminal 80s romantic comedies likely find Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut to be a tinge offbeat. The pacing, the dialogue, the character arcs: nothing ever seems to conform to your expectations, and the result is a truly strange viewing experience. Yet, it’s not a bad viewing experience. The film is beloved, remembered fondly for providing another voice in the surprisingly enduring genre of 80s teen romcoms. Re-watching Say Anything…, I was struck by how I still never quite know what will happen next, or how. The novelty has remained, and I can confidently say that the movie’s strangeness is a strength. But how exactly does it achieve this effect? And how does it remain so captivating?
The cause of the odd sense that the movie evokes can be most readily attributed to the development of the story—an unlikely relationship between the intelligent, beautiful Diane Court (Ione Skye) and the romantic, doofy Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack). The two find common ground in being outcasts; Diane is driven and pushed to achieve by her father, which makes her schedule so full as to have no time to meet and socialize with her peers. Lloyd is strange and intense, not being hated but existing on the fringes. However, Lloyd’s meandering approach to existence—one that allows him to live in the moment, but keeps him from planning for the future—starkly contrasts Diane’s structured life. This conflict is inherently interesting, but not necessarily strange.
The way the film captures these sensibilities is what gives it that effect. When we’re introduced to Lloyd, it’s in the middle of a conversation. He tells his friends that he plans to take out Diane Court for a second time, but we don’t even know who she is or how they met. He and his friends disagree a bit, and he leaves both his friends and the audience a little uncertain of what he’s doing. When we meet Diane, it’s much more straight forward: she’s practicing her graduation speech, and the conversation with her father is exclusively encouraging. There’s no ambiguity, so we understand Diane and her father’s relationship immediately; we do not get an equal understanding of Lloyd and his friends. Further, while the shots with Lloyd are dynamic—featuring multiple characters of uncertain relationships in an unfamiliar room—the ones with Diane and her father are more typical, focusing on a notably cinematic trope: the basic one-on-one conversation in a moving car, en route to the events under discussion. The movie is reflecting the difference in lifestyles, emulating the meandering nature of Lloyd’s approach to life as opposed to Diane’s traditional and structured approach. The unstructured sensibility slowly overtakes the movie, even during scenes where Diane is the POV character, reflecting the way Lloyd affects the way she thinks and acts. Our comfort with this aimlessness contradicts how we’re expected to act and think about the future. Lloyd’s embracing of the uncertain is unusual but welcome.
Lloyd and the movie itself meander, but it’s not a bad thing. Whereas many films, especially romcoms, take a pretty straight line from the meet cute to happily ever after, Say Anything… takes the long way home. Instead of great proclamations of love, or loud scenes with explosive arguments, we see the conversations that lead there. Crowe is much more interested in the conversations before or after a big event than the events themselves, because there he can teach us the most about his characters. It’s the way people act in everyday conversation that teaches us the most about who they are and what they want. It’s the conversation that comes after a big romantic gesture (the famous boombox scene), rather than a dramatic reunion during (it’s worth noting that a reunion doesn’t occur during this scene, but at a later time). We as viewers are not used to this method of character development, especially in teen romcoms, but the writing and direction are so deft that our enjoyment never wanes.
By not biding time between big scenes, Say Anything… manages to keep the tension, drama, and intrigue at a consistently high level, which further contributes to the unique impression it leaves on the viewer. Instead of spending a long time at a 2 out of 10 on the Drama Scale with moments that register at an 8, Crowe keeps the movie at a constant 6 or 7*. The result beautifully mimics Lloyd’s mindset. I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school, I had no idea what I was doing or going to do. I was awkward and took everything very, very seriously—
including especially mundane social interactions. The pacing of the movie captures that sensibility and thus binds us to Lloyd with empathy. Say Anything… feels like being in high school, where every moment is as huge as every other, and the future is uncertain at best. The evocation of that specific feeling is impressive and emotionally involving. Rather than being a movie about teenage romance that’s clearly from the perspective of an adult, Say Anything… attempts to capture the perspective of a teenager with no answers to the big questions being asked of him.
Crowe also does some more conventional toying with the genre and our expectations, namely in how he uses the characters to subvert our typical understanding of recent high school graduates and their loved ones. It’s hard not to find Diane’s relationship with her father heartwarming; he’s overwhelmingly supportive, pushing her to work hard and succeed yet avoiding the overbearing disposition of similar parents in similar movies. Further, we’re given every reason to think Diane’s relationship with Lloyd will be fun but ultimately fleeting. Yet, at every turn, the scenes deviate from the expected follow-up, SPOILER Her father proves to be a liar, and a pretty despicable human being—he’s been stealing money from recently deceased patients at his nursing home—whereas Lloyd is overwhelmingly supportive and kind, actually listening to and caring about Diane. END SPOILER
She can say anything(…) to Lloyd, a feeling she lost with her father. And ultimately, that freedom and potential—to say or do anything—is the sensibility that makes the film so successful. Anything can happen, anything can be said, and the world of the film is free of judgement. The fact that Crowe manages to capture that in the editing and cinematography on top of the writing is what makes Say Anything… such a unique and powerful experience. He transports those of us who were meandering teenagers back to our youth, back to those feelings of disquiet, uncertainty, and—most importantly—possibility. Say Anything… is one of the greats of 80s teen romance flicks, and deservedly so, because it might be the only one that respects its characters enough to be like them.
*While this concept isn’t exactly revolutionary, I want to note that I adapted it from Errant Signal’s excellent video on Alien: Isolation.