I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen
Say Anything is a film that grows with you. I see it differently now that I’m dad than I did when I was kidless but married in my late 20s, which is different from how I saw it when I was single in my early 20s. It is a very romantic and funny film, but it is also a trenchant character study. Director and writer Cameron Crowe has made more popular and colorful films, but this is his greatest work.
Graduating high school senior Lloyd Dobbs (John Cusack) decides to ask out valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), who is beautiful but detached from the popular crowd. She devotes her time to her studies, working at a retirement home, and spending time with her father, Jim (John Mahoney). At first Diane declines Lloyd, but he keeps her on the line — this is a landline phone call, which is important because the way different forms of communication increase and decrease our connection with each other will become one of the movie’s themes — and she eventually relents, agreeing to attend a graduation party as his date.
Lloyd and Diane find themselves natural companions, and it’s one of the film’s great pleasures to watch them grow closer together as friends and lovers over the next several scenes. Crowe nails the writing in the dialogue; there’s something about its cadence that is both organic and peppy, full of funny little details and turns of phrase. They talk like two real and unusual people who have fallen in love.
This is such a great film to rewatch because of the life in all of the details. The iconic moments — the boom box, the gas station, the buying/selling/processing monologue — all stand up to scrutiny, but there’s so much stuff on the edges that delights, too. For example, I burst out laughing when the old lady told Lloyd “you’re too tall!” It’s such a specific and odd observation.
Cusack and Skye have great chemistry, though Skye’s performance is maybe too pristine and edgeless. At least some of that is intentional, as it fits with Diane’s down-the-middle personality. According to IMDb, Jennifer Connelly was the runner up for the Diane role, and I suspect that might have been the right choice. Certainly it’s easy to imagine Connelly bringing some fire to the more emotional and passionate scenes of the film.
On the other hand, Cusack is remarkable and irreplaceable. He was so perfect at this age at embodying lovable yet neurotic teen heroes. His deliveries are very funny, but he has a huge vulnerable streak.
What really makes the film click are the complex emotional dynamics between the three leads, especially in the film’s second half. The struggle for Diane between Lloyd and her father, Jim, plays out much like a romantic-vs.-platonic love triangle. It’s not a simple black-and-white conflict, though Jim is clearly a hypocrite and the antagonist. I mentioned in the intro that my perspective on the film has shifted every time I’ve watched it: That’s especially true of the evolving light in which I see Diane’s father. He commodifies his expressions of love as gifts that he’s accumulated through misdeeds, and tries to turn Diane into a proxy spouse. He doesn’t treat her as a person so much as an asset he can invest in like she’s a blue chip stock.
It gets even wonkier once you start to unspool exactly what Jim’s crimes are: He’s extracted wealth from vulnerable elderly people, insisting that his presence is the equivalent of love, and that he can transform that love into a currency. This paints a dark mirror on how he views Diane and other people in his life, including his ex-wife: Are they merely numerical ledgers for him, too? And yet he’s never cruel or abusive: Diane flies away for a fellowship in London built on the life of privilege and dedication her father created for her, albeit on stolen wealth.
It’s a really complicated and nuanced dynamic that the film takes seriously, but also too big a shift away from the movie’s electric romcom energy that dominates the film’s first half. The film tilts its focus too far away from Diane and Lloyd’s relationship, though they share an absolutely magnificent final scene aboard an airplane.
Say Anything is a film I treasure. It’s so much more human than the majority of teen movies and romantic comedies, full of sparkling life and complicated characters. I’m excited to see what it grows into next.