The worth of any romantic comedy or drama is the value we place on each character in the relationship. Any falsehood and our investment breaks. Most stories can’t remain true to their setup because the formula demands otherwise. But sometimes a film comes along that transcends that formula and breaks expectations, turning a would-be forgettable love story into something timeless. Such is the case with 1989’s Say Anything.
Say Anything is not a typical teen romantic comedy with one-dimensional stock characters and gratuitous sex, instead played for real, with a touching story that deals directly with honest expressions of emotions as two young lovers learn about who they are, what their futures hold, and the complexities of growing up. The humor is not set-ups and jokes but instead born organically from the emotions and struggles these people face. It deals with conflict and growth, and meaningful relationships that have impact and consequences. These relationships orbit around one girl, a bright high school senior named Diane Court (Ione Skye). She has two men in her life with whom represent opposite ends of a tug-of-war for which there is no easy winner. The first man is her father, played by John Mahoney, who wants only the best for his daughter and has demands for her future but is also a sensible and understanding single parent. The other is fellow graduating student Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), with whom she is quickly falling in love. And vice versa.
Directed by Cameron Crowe, Say Anything is really a landmark film in that it utterly changed the way the genre had been developing. For most of the decade, John Hughes had been exploring teen angst with great success, his films accessible and effectively sentimental but it was time to evolve and this is where Say Anything took that next step. Still identifiable with teens, it has a maturity most lacked, treating its characters with a more adult approach. Many Hughes films, and imitators of his work, often painted most grown-ups as out of touch or, in many cases, as dolts (though Hughes was less guilty of this). Say Anything feels grounded and when it comes to the repercussions of the emotional and physical development teens experience, it is its honesty that sets it apart. And that begins with Lloyd.
Lloyd Dobler has long been an icon of the grand romantic gesture, an enviable boy many young women hold as ideal. His respect for Diane and for himself have made him a cultural benchmark for the genre and even decades later, is influential. While the entirety of the movie proves his worth, there is of course one moment that deserves a closer look, not just for its visual impact, but for what it means.
The Boom Box Moment
To understand the motivation behind this scene, we have to look at what brought Lloyd and Diane to this crucial turning point. That begins as the films starts, when Lloyd gets the nerve to call his dream girl and ask her to a party, even though he’s not even sure she knows who he is. Charmed by his sincerity, she agrees to begin dating, and we learn that for each, it is their first serious relationship. Lloyd is well-liked by his sister and her friends, who all deeply care for him and offer advice with his best interests in mind. But they are wary of his heart. Diane’s father is also on his guard. More practical and pragmatic, protective and concerned, his interest in Lloyd is one of responsibility, worried he will be a stumbling block for Diane. He wants his daughter to experience her life and not get stuck on a boy who has no future.
That aside, the two grow closer, and they become deeply intimate, finally having sex in the backseat of his car, which is implied to be the first for both (and is one the best of its kind). Whatever the troubling, beautiful, mysterious word love means, the two feel it between them. It’s raw, but perhaps unfortunately for them both, ill-timed. While this is happening, Diane’s father becomes entangled in a financial scam that sees him facing a criminal investigation. The strain of this situation forces her to make adult choices and with the pressure of this, her planned future for a year in Europe, and the prospect that a relationship is holding all that back eventually leads her to make the most adult decision she’s yet to make. In his car one evening, she tells Lloyd goodbye (and gives him a pen).
Let’s pause here and consider this parting. The unexpected break-up in movies, especially in teen films, is a standard trope. Typically, it’s motivated by one of two things: a) the person doing the breaking is shallow and has grown more popular and so wants to move on, or b) somebody is cheating. What sets this break-up apart is how conflicted we feel as the audience, our allegiances feel torn. We want to empathize with Lloyd but because Crowe has so masterfully developed Diane, we understand her as well. The moment is, like every emotionally significant moment in the movie, almost hard to watch as it feels so personal. It’s almost voyeuristic.
Devastated, Lloyd tries to piece it all together, passing the time recording his thoughts and getting extemporaneous advice from the boys behind the Gas-n-Sip who’ve made a “conscious choice” to be single. But all the while Diane lingers in his mind and there is no getting rid her. He then confesses that he’s got it all figured out. Staying depressed means anything can be a pleasant surprise. He meets with Cory (Lili Taylor), his best friend, and tells her that he’s done trying to contact her and trying to get back together. He has his pride. He’s a guy. That’s how it goes. But she scolds him, saying the world is full of guys. Don’t be a guy. Be a man. He makes one more call (after countless tries) and she doesn’t answer. What he doesn’t know is that she is listening. Screening calls, she and her father have heard his pleas and she very nearly picks up the receiver, but hesitates and is too late. Meanwhile, things get worse for her father. The day ends with insecurity, pain, and confusion for all.
And so comes the moment. At dawn the next morning, Diane lays on her bed atop her blankets, clearly unrested. She tosses and turns, her mind too scattered about to find sleep. The camera lingers on her as she stares up at the ceiling, troubled and heartbroken. Behind her, through an open window framed with lace curtains, the morning sun bathes a stand of trees in yellow light. Chirping in the early haze, nature gently echoes in the quiet space between her and the world outside. Yet there is something different in the chorus. She turns to the window and props herself up on her elbows.
It cuts to Lloyd, standing on a gravel path under a grove of trees on the edge of a picnic park just near Diane’s home. Wearing his signature long top coat over a T-shirt, in his hands, extended up and above his head is a boom box blasting Peter Gabriel‘s In Your Eyes. It is the same song heard the night they first made love in the back of his car. It cuts back briefly to Diane who recognizes the song and the meaning. She turns away from the window onto her side and lets the memories and song wash over her. Back to Lloyd, the camera slowly closes the gap for nearly a minute, and we watch as he stands proud, fierce, and unmoving. He is stone-faced. He is committed. And he is not a guy.
Grand public displays of affection are basically the cornerstone of romantic comedies, and as the years pass, they have escalated to wildly unbelievable and ridiculous levels, most to the point of absurdity. While certainly Lloyd’s dramatic romantic gesture is not the first of its kind, it is arguably the most memorable of its time, and is easily the influence for why so many that have followed try to do better. But why does it affect us so deeply? What makes this simple act so profoundly endearing, because let’s face it, anyone else in the real world doing this would come off looking foolish. Truthfully, the moment itself could have been a catastrophe (and Crowe and Cusack spent a lot of time working out the stance). But the answer is simple, and is a repeat of what’s been the recurring theme of this article. We believe in Lloyd. The character is so-well defined and presented, we ache for him as the story progresses. But it’s Cusack’s astonishing realization of that character that sells this moment with no waver. Crowe could have put that boom box anywhere (an early take had it on the car roof), but it ends up in his hands, up above his head. It’s defiance, it’s persistence, it’s an act of sheer determination and unbreakable faith in himself and the bond he shares with Diane. It requires no words, needs no expositions, and with great trust in the audience, allows us to be part of it. That is movie making at its best.
The moment has become one of the most well-known romantic gestures in cinema history and continues to hold dear for fans old and new of this remarkable movie experience.
John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor