500 Days of Summer: Expectations vs. Reality

The want to love and be loved is a basic human condition. It’s something we all crave, even if sometimes we do our best to hide it. Despite our efforts, we’re reminded of love everywhere we look, as if the idea of it is constantly being marketed to us. We see love in books and magazines, in movies, in ads, in Facebook posts and Instagram stories, and even when walking down the street. No matter what form it comes in, it all says the same thing: that being in love is better. If you’re like me, then you’ve bought into this idea whether you’ve realized it or not. In the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer, we meet Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, yet another faithful consumer of the idea that love is the best thing we do. 

Tom is an aspiring architect and idealistic romantic, who believes that the only way he’ll ever truly be happy is if he meets “the one”, which causes his world to fall apart when his co-worker Summer (Zooey Deschanel) decides they shouldn’t see each other anymore. The film recounts the 500 days leading up to and following their break-up, from the moment they meet, to the moment their relationship ends, to the moment Tom finally learns to accept it, and move on. 

The search for “the one” isn’t something that’s new to the romantic comedy genre. Ross Gellar from Friends, Ted Stroehmann from There’s Something About Mary, and Ben Braddock from The Graduate are but a few examples that come to mind of characters that have pursued “the one”, but out of their own infatuation with the idea of being in love. They are characters that obsess over it, and walk around with name tags on their foreheads that say “NICE GUY”, yet lash out when reality doesn’t meet their expectations. However, I don’t think a film has portrayed the nice guy trope as accurately or as honestly as 500 Days of Summer. We see his relationship with Summer through Tom’s perspective, and learn early on that he is an unreliable narrator. The moments with her that seemed so perfect to Tom, were actually moments filled with sadness or frustration. 500 Days of Summer will forever be a favorite of mine, simply because of how relatable it is. I myself have been in relationships where I could physically feel the other person’s love waning. It’s one of the worst feelings imaginable. You can try to ignore it, or convince yourself that everything is fine like Tom does, but the more desperately you try to hold on, the more distant the other person gets. There are so many moments in this film that feel as if they were written for me. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with the idea of being in love. The thought of having that one person to hold hands with in IKEA, or make laugh in record stores, or lie in bed with all night sharing our deepest secrets, has always appealed to me. But while all of that seems great on the outside, the inside is a different story entirely. Much like our central character Tom, my expectations often get the better of me, and in some cases, have even caused me to lose grip on reality. If something doesn’t play out the way it does in my chaotic mess of a head, it can lead to a lot of insecurities. Because of this, I’ve rushed into relationships, I’ve ignored red flags, I’ve hurt people, I’ve gotten hurt. And even though I’ve learned my lesson countless times, the cycle keeps repeating, as if I’m fated to keep falling in and out of love forever. I’m sharing all of this here and now because it’s something about myself that I hate, and something I’ve worked tirelessly to fix. Just like Tom, I’m flawed. I know that the only way I’ll ever be able to sustain a healthy relationship with another person is if I learn to let go of my expectations, and learn to love myself first. Trust me, it’s easier said than done. It’s hard to admit one’s own toxic traits, but accepting them is the first step towards fixing them. 500 Days of Summer is the film that made me want to change. 

Getting back to the film itself, 500 Days of Summer will always be special to me. Not just because of how honest it is about love and relationships, but because it never fails to break my heart and make me smile at the same time. I’ll always miss Tom and Summer, as one does an old friend, but I know in my heart that eventually, they both found what they were looking for. I hope we all do.