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Lessons in love and loss from My Girl (1991)

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When I was a child, we had a girl from a few doors down come to stay. Let’s call her… Han.

Han’s brother had broken arm, so their parents were at the hospital with him. My parents are kind people and agreed to look after her while they were there, plus they knew letting us watch a film was both a treat and a cheap babysitter. They let Han choose a VHS (it was the early nineties) from Blockbuster.

I really, really wanted to see either The Addams Family or Hook. But Han and my younger sister chose My Girl. I was distraught. Eight-year-old me didn’t understand a democratic voting process – or why I had to be subjected to this kind of disgusting compassion.

Eight-year-old me was also about to discover what menstruation was, which, although an entirely unrelated point, was very unexpected and daunting. What My Girl did, (apart from cause my mum a very awkward half an hour of explaining things to us), was plant a seed which I believe took root, shaping the growth of my film preferences.

See, it’s no secret that I love action, horror and violence. I like to pretend I am a misanthrope, a lone wolf and hard, strong-silent-type kind of guy. And seeing as we’re pretending, all of that and tall and handsome, too. But what I don’t tell people too often is that I have a soft spot for a romance film. I really quite enjoy them in fact.

With one caveat: people have gotta’ die.

No rom-coms, though

I turned Love, Actually off. I don’t want any happy endings. At least one of the loved-up couple has to have something seriously horrible happen to them or I’m not buying it.

Now, maybe this displays a dour outlook on life. Maybe. But despite my apparent lack of compassion at eight, I have learned how to feel love and care about other people. Feeling is crucial. When I’m watching a film, I want to feel something. Fear, excitement, nervousness, joy, astonishment and sorrow are all powerful emotions and experiencing them is the reason I watch films.

Romeo & Juliet, Titanic, Atonement, Never Let Me Go, The Notebook – they all share a key tragic element: the sorrow of a love lost. I still can’t hear the line, “You died on a Saturday morning” from Forrest Gump without a wave of emotion rippling through me.

Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which is wonderful, quirky, powerful film-making, is also horribly sad. The Fountain, by Darren Aronofsky, despite being at face value a stylish and abstract sci-fi, has a crippling, doomed love story spanning centuries at its heart. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t even try to hide where it’s headed, but is no less withering.

All of this is important for a number of reasons. These films strengthen our faith in human relationships, dragging us into their world, we become caught up in the characters’ lives. Strong cinematic courtships encourage deep investment in the outcomes of the protagonists and nothing drives that love home better than seeing it end. I don’t mean that flippantly. Witnessing this finality not only jerks tears from our pathetic eye ducts – it reaffirms what we hold so important and why we care about others.

Movies teach us a lot about life

From a storytelling point of view, tragedy is also a handy device, allowing a narrative denouement, a climax. If Jack hadn’t died in Titanic, the years of Rose falling out of love with him while he bonked every lady who let him draw her would have made for a very different film. If Romeo had waited a little longer and seen Juliet wake, their teenage fling would have simply been a horrifically selfish tryst which caused the deaths of several loyal friends and almost started a war. But they’d have been alive and the story would have suffered.

So I’ve got My Girl to thank for this conviction of mine. 

If I hadn’t sat through Howard Zieff’s film, I wouldn’t have been getting emotionally caught up in Thomas and Vada’s little crush. I certainly wouldn’t have had my tiny heart broken when Thomas was stung by a bee and died. I wouldn’t have felt, against my will, the surge of empathy and powerful sense of loss which I turned to cinema for again over the years.

Tragedy helps us understand that it’s ok to lose things. It helps us come to terms with the fact we’ll have to say goodbye to people one day – to know that not everything lasts forever. And that’s why great love stories must experience great loss.

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