Movie Love: Romantic Films That Aren’t Cookie Cutter

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Traditional rom-coms just don’t do it for me, even in the month of l’amour. Cookie cutter scripts and treacly meet-cutes? Not today, Satan. Luckily, there are a whole host of smart, bittersweet, irreverent love stories that chart their own path. Some of my favorite offbeat romance flicks include…

The May-December romance: Harold and Maude

If you haven’t seen this cult classic, released in 1971, beeline it to the couch and settle in. It’s best to describe it in the voice of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, because this movie has everything: existentialistic musings, fake suicide attempts, humor as black as diner coffee, musings on mortality and the nature of love, original music by Cat Stevens, hearses, banjos, and timeless crown braid hairstyles. In a marked departure from your typical “cute young people meet each other” formula, the titular characters—twentysomething Harold and 79-year-old Maude—begin a courtship that upends our traditional conception of love and romance.

In both a literal and symbolic sense, Harold, consumed with shocking his socialite mother and staging fake suicide tableaus, is Death. The wise and plucky Maude—determined to wring every last drop out of her time on Earth—is Life. The two find they have much to teach each other; despite (and because of) their vast age difference, they find a home in each other’s hearts. This sweetness never strays into saccharine territory, thanks to liberal doses of irreverent humor and general weirdness. It’s touching, discomfiting and hilarious, and even if your current partner isn’t a septuagenarian, you’ll relate in a way that lingers long after this film has ended.

The sometimes we create our own families love story: Short Term 12

This 2013 indie, starring Brie Larson, is a heartbreaker involving all kinds of love: familial, romantic, agape and even self-love. Larson’s character, Grace, works at a group home for at risk and “problematic” teens. Her story is complicated; Grace is dealing with the ghosts of her own harrowing past, while struggling to fully engage with her supportive and loving boyfriend. The lengths she will go to in order to protect the kids she works with, even as she fights to reconcile with her own emotions and memories, is nothing short of stunning.

Throughout the film, Grace comes to realize that sometimes your real family is made up of people that you choose to love and trust. Her journey is filmed in unflinching closeness, allowing us to see the reality of what makes us break, as well as how we try to put the pieces back together. (Bring a box of tissues to watch this one, seriously).

For the romance that is weird as eff and defies all logic: Upstream Color

I hesitate to even try and describe this surreal dreamscape of a movie, but here goes—So, there’s this strange parasite, one that is initially placed in a human, moves on to pigs and finally, embeds in a type of wild orchid, wherein the cycle begins again. The parasite is used for nefarious purposes, as it engenders a kind of mind control upon its victims; anyone implanted with it will become extremely susceptible to outside influence and bidding. Oh, and then there’s the part where once the parasite is removed from a person and placed in a pig host, the human host can sense the memory and life of that pig. I know, it sounds crazy…and make no mistake, this is an illogical, mind-bending, and maddening look at nature, obsession, and love.

Much of the pleasure of Upstream Color is figuring out the puzzle pieces for yourself, even as the main couple, Kris and Jeff, struggle to understand what is happening to them. They are drawn to one another as if by magnets (that damn parasite again) and consumed by a terrifyingly deep connection, though they are total strangers. Their drive to understand how and why they belong together will feel familiar to anyone in the first dizzying stages of all-consuming love, despite the sci-fi overlay. And despite its narrative challenges to the viewer, and its non-linear plot lines, this is a film of dazzling and terrifying beauty—as simultaneously thrilling and fear-inducing as first love itself.

For people tired of Fifty Shades of Meh: Secretary

This 2000 film, starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story, so you know it’s bound to be good. On the surface, it might seem to retread the same old power dynamic—socially awkward and insecure Lee applies for a secretarial job with a handsome attorney, Edward, and a BDSM relationship unfurls, with Edward as the dom. But this small, darkly comic character study has heart and substance beneath the black stockings and restraints. Both Lee and Edward read as actual people, harboring real desires and fears as they fumble towards their own version of true love.

The admirable thing about this film is how it normalizes desire and fantasy, rather than fetishizing it. (I mean, it is literally about engaging in a fetish, but you know what I mean). Because Lee and Edward are eventually at home with one another, they can be themselves in a way that they couldn’t be with anyone else—and watching them get to that point is a funny, sexy and thrilling viewing experience.

we heartsers: what are some of your favorite offbeat romantic films?



Amity teaches rhetoric, composition, and creative writing in Central PA. Her non-fiction has appeared in xojane and Story, as well as on Snap Judgement and This American Life; her fiction has appeared in Hobart. She is the cohost of Bone Palace Ballet, a true crime podcast focusing on murder, mysteries, and the macabre.

3 thoughts on “Movie Love: Romantic Films That Aren’t Cookie Cutter”

  1. turboterp

    Well, I just cried through the entire trailer of Short Term 12. Thanks for the tip, @amity! I love Harold and Maude, too. Have you ever seen Waitress? It’s one of my favorite offbeat romances.

    1. Short Term 12 is SO sad, but in a wonderful way. I pretty much ugly cry through at least half of it when watching, but I promise it’s worth it. And Waitress is a great pick–although it always makes me so sad, too, because of Adrienne Shelly’s murder.

  2. stef

    I love Secretary! It’s sexy and quirky, and you are so right – a million times hotter than that 50 Shades of Gray (I laughed through that whole movie! Everything that was supposed to be sexy made me roll my eyes.)

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