On January 25, 2007, Onion A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin inadvertently added a phrase to the movie lexicon. One that would eventually get it’s own Wikipedia page and its own NPR story. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In his review of Elizabethtown, Rabin said the following of Kirstin Dunst’s character: “Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.”
This term caught on and The Onion A.V. Club later did a countdown of 16 films that featured Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Opening on Friday is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film where the love interest apparently lives and dies by this code. In honor of Scott Pilgrim, I decided to do a top 5 devoted to Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
Now before I get any hate mail, I would like to set out some guidelines. Natalie Portman from Garden State will not be making the list for two reasons. It is an obvious pick but more importantly, I don’t think she matched my criteria when putting this list together. She is absolutely a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but I decided to focus on ones that felt realistic. I do think there have been realistic depictions of that kind of character and these five choices match that criterion.
NOTE: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
I have seen Punch Drunk Love at least 40 or 50 times – it is in my all-time top 5, and each time I watch it I get something new out of it. For example, if you pay close attention to the scenes of Barry wondering around in the supermarket early on in the film, Lena is always in the background. It’s as if these two eccentric people need each other to survive. We get hints at what Lena might have gone through in her previous relationship, but it is really Barry who needs her more than anything else. He needs to be with her to escape from his seven sisters who all torment him, and to address the situation he has gotten himself in with Dean the mattress man. However, P.T. Anderson puts the relationship in the real world and grounds it by letting Lena react to the events that surround her. The last shot is one of the most moving I have ever seen on film.
Snow Angels is the only film on this list that is not a comedy. While I wouldn’t call the other four outrageously funny films, they are all comedic in tone. David Gordon Green’s film is a powerful and tragic look at life in a small town. However, the subplot involving Arthur (Michael Angarano) falling in love with the new girl at his high school Lila (Olivia Thirlby) is one of the sweetest things I have seen in a long time. Their relationship feels completely authentic and it works thematically with the rest of the film.
3. Chasing Amy (Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa)
These next three selections do not end happily. In Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Holden (Ben Affleck) sees Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) as his perfect match. They are both comic book artists and they share a lot of the same interests. Yet, because Alyssa is lesbian, they will never be more than best friends, something that Holden’s character starts to realize. He decides to tell Alyssa that he loves her, in one of the most romantic scenes of all time, and she actually feels the same way. However, because of Holden’s insecurities, he can’t truly love Alyssa given some of the “baggage” that she brings. What is so wonderful about this relationship is that you believe them as friends. Not many films depict male-female friendships and while it does turn romantic, Smith sets them up as friends and friends first.
“I’m not a concept, Joel. I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. I’m not perfect.”
While Clementine does subvert the Manic Pixie Dream Girl definition, I would not hesitate to guess that most audience members fell head over heals in love with her. She is not perfect, in fact she even admits that, but she is spontaneous, funny, alive, imaginative, and is perfectly content to just be herself. Yes, she has flaws, but like Joel discovers, when you fall in love, you learn to fall in love with that person’s flaws.
You knew this was coming. If there is one actress who has made a living out of playing Manic Pixie Dream Girls, it is Zooey Deschanel. A lot of people have grown weary of it but she always brings something new to the table for me. The thing I love about Summer is that Tom thinks of her as his Manic Pixie Dream Girl because of how he thinks about love. His philosophy on love mostly comes from the movies, especially his “total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” Summer is not that girl. She doesn’t know if she loves him, much less if she even believes in love. At the end of the film there is a switch in philosophies. Tom doesn’t believe in “true love” and Summer, after getting married to someone else, does. (500) Days of Summer is a film that I loved when it came out but has grown in my estimation since then. It didn’t come close to making top ten list of last year, but after watching it four or five times, and having events in the film play out in my real life, it would have easily made my top five and it will be on my top of the decade list.