Save Yourself

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For my thirteenth birthday, I hosted my first-ever sleepover. I printed paper invitations in curlicued fonts and slipped them into the letterboxes of my girlfriends’ houses, inviting them for pizza and a trip to the movies for the opening day of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. A rom-com starring Orlando Bloom–what could possibly be better for a group of thirteen-year-old girls?

I know, I know–a lot could have been better, right? Elizabethtown was the movie that inspired writer Nathan Rabin to coin the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–or, in other words, a female character whose sole purpose is to charm the male lead out of his existential funk. Her job is to save him from himself. In 2014, Rabin wrote an article for Salon, apologizing for the trope and calling it “a fundamentally sexist one.”

When I read that, I thought, Well, what’s Prince Charming’s job, then? Is having to rescue the princess from the highest room of the tallest tower, or the evil stepmother, or the fire-breathing dragon supposed to be a given?

The first time I watched Elizabethtown, in the middle seat of the middle row, surrounded by my chatty and giggly friends, I silently rooted for the girl to save the guy.

The movie opens with Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) considering throwing himself from a helicopter. Drew is on his way to a meeting with his boss, Phil (Alec Baldwin), to mourn the $972 million he’s lost his shoe company. It hurts to see his almost-ex-girlfriend Ellen’s (Jessica Biel) expression, creased with embarrassment, as she walks him to Phil’s office. What a fiasco.

“As somebody once said, there’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco,” Drew narrates.“A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco–a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others, that makes other people feel more alive. Because it didn’t happen to them.”

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The summer after I first watched Elizabethtown, I fell in love with a boy. Some friends invited me out to see a movie–Scary Movie 3, I think. They’d dressed up–skirts, heeled sandals, too-bright eyeshadow–and neglected to tell me they’d also invited two boys. I showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt with my hair in a messy ponytail. They were already in the crowded theater, and there he was, sitting at the end of the row closest to me. He looked up when my friends motioned for me to join them–and smiled. My breath caught; it was a natural smile and it lingered, saying, Sit next to me. He was pale, with dark hair and hazel eyes: a real-life dreamboat who belonged on the big screen.

“Taylor!” one of the girls, Katie, called. “Come sit next to me.” Disheartened, I realized that this was some sort of setup for him and our friend Laura, who had a crush on him. She was cozying up to him before the credits had even started. But then a couple sat down next to Katie and there was only one seat left; I’d have to sit next to him.

“Oh well,” he chimed in sarcastically, patting the empty seat. Katie and Laura glanced at each other knowingly; I was going to be watched like a hawk for the next two hours. But it didn’t matter much; even though I looked like hell, he’d picked me.

We “dated” throughout the summer–we met up at the movies, at various parks, and talked on the phone for hours at a time. He told me about his less-than-ideal childhood, how he still wasn’t over his parents’ divorce, and about butting heads with his stepmom. I listened more than I spoke; I absorbed his troubles and they became mine, too, but only to a certain point: I broke up with him in a letter before school started; I wasn’t ready to have sex yet, and he was dropping hints like a bad juggler.

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Drew gets the call from his sister (Judy Greer): their father, Mitch, has had a heart attack in his native Elizabethtown. “You have to handle this. You’re the oldest. You’re the responsible one,” she says tearfully. She doesn’t know he’s been getting ready to kill himself with an admittedly laughable contraption fashioned out of an automatic exercise bike, a chef’s knife, and some duct tape. Drew’s immediate plan is “to get back on that bike” once his father is buried.

Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) shows up in Drew’s life inconveniently. He’s the only passenger on a red-eye flight to Louisville, Kentucky, and she proves to be much more than a stewardess to him. She keeps him awake long into the night, giving him directions to Elizabethtown from the airport and analyzing people in his life based on their first names. (In this instance, Mitches are fun and full of life, while Ellens are unpredictable.) She leaves her number on the map she draws for him, just in case he needs anything.

She’s earnest, I thought. Genuine–she means what she says. My girlfriends all thought she was desperate, too forward. But how else do you let someone know you’re interested? You have to do something. Maybe she’ll make him change his mind about (killing) himself?

After we broke up, we still kept in touch every so often, via not-exactly-accidental text messages and Facebook. Our “tradition” was to meet up at Barnes & Noble and browse books while catching up on each other’s lives, then move on to the smoothie place next door or down the street to the park. We always reconnected during the summertime, and I liked to think that we were watching each other grow up. That wasn’t the case, however: I would always end up pandering to his problems, and he had a lot. Regardless, it was a reward when he said, “I feel like I can talk to you about anything.” I thought I was waiting in the wings; he’d realize, eventually, that I was the right person for him, that I did right by him in the waiting.

But that’s never how it works out, is it?

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Claire knows that Drew needs a vacation from himself. She creates an entire experience for him after his father’s funeral: a road trip, complete with eclectic bartenders and landmarks to visit, and a soundtrack for the entire trip, all with his father’s ashes in tow. When Claire instructs Drew to visit a magazine stand to read an article about his business failure, she narrates, “You have five minutes to wallow in the delicious misery. Enjoy it, embrace it. Discard it. And proceed.” The trip, in the end, presents him with a choice: look for her at a Midwestern farmer’s market, or continue on to Oregon.

Recently, I re-watched Elizabethtown after many years. The way Drew gazes doe-eyed at Claire when he finds her at the farmer’s market startled me this time around. He barely knows her! All he really knows is that she’d created a fictional boyfriend to arouse jealousy in him (Ben–apparently, Ellens are less predictable than Bens). Claire was certainly a creative and clever–not to mention manipulative–planner; she knew even less about him, and yet she knew more: she was able to convince him, with nothing more to go on than his good looks and his demeanor, that she was the perfect solution to his self-absorption. And Drew looks at her as if he really does need her.

But that was what I’d wanted, too, right? To be needed, to be rewarded. Claire wanted to be rewarded for taking an interest in Drew that went past a glance and a clever come-on, and she wanted to make damn sure she got that reward. What I’d loved about Claire, before I’d ever fallen in love, was her gumption. She didn’t wait around for him. Instead, she set to work on showing him what life with her could be. Claire was my hero.

What were Drew’s fringe benefits in this whole arrangement, though? That’s a questionElizabethtown largely fails to answer. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that Claire’s saving him from himself is enough, but I’d be curious to see how their relationship actually pans out after the final credits finish rolling. Does Drew grow out of her, realize that he doesn’t need saving? Does Claire find a new project, someone else who needs a fresh start, now that Drew has been taken care of?

The last night I saw my old boyfriend, years ago, he was on leave from boot camp. It was a cool April night, humid, the scent of rain permeating the air. We’d agreed to meet at an all-night cafe. As I walked across the brightly lit parking lot, I saw him sitting at the bar, facing me through the tall window, though he avoided looking in my direction—out of shyness, I thought. Goosebumps erupted on my arms.

There was this girl, he said, that he was planning to marry after he got out of boot camp. She was gorgeous—in the photo he showed me, she was tall and tan with the pearliest of whites—and she loved him exactly as he was.

“And she has hair that actually reminds me of yours,” he said. I fingered my own chin-length hair nervously, offering an empty, conceding smile. He saw things in this girl that I’d always wanted him to see in me.

I’d wasted years of my life hoping that I was his possibility, that I would become his plan. When we parted that night, I was relieved: he was no longer my responsibility. It hadn’t been love at all; it had been a one-way street.

It can make you feel like you’re a whole person, a heroic person, to put someone else first. I love Elizabethtown because it’s a lesson about what not to do. Once, Drew’s narcissism was amusing to me (now it’s just boring) and Claire’s selflessness was admirable (now it just reads as somewhere between manipulative and naive). Really loving someone doesn’t mean waiting for that someone to love you, and you can’t force love by doing what you think that someone needs. They have to save themselves, and so do you