illustration by Brianna Ashby

“It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” —Raymond Carver

Essentially, we’re hard-wired to root for love. We want relationships to work out, both onscreen and off. We want to believe couples make it, because we want to make it, too.

We want to meet cute. We want to fall, head over heels. We want to write songs and have songs written about us.

We want things to work out. We want to love and be loved. We want happily ever after, or at least a chance to believe that exists.

Which is exactly why a film like Blue Valentine is so very hard to watch. Hollywood, so long complicit in the perpetual fueling of our happily-ever-after fantasies, here turns around and slaps us in our face by giving us the whole story. The beginning and the end (with all the various highs and lows in between). It’s draining. It’s painful. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s also one of the finest relationship movies I’ve ever seen. Not because all relationships are awful—some are, some aren’t—but rather because they are, so often, such hard work. And so rarely do we get to see all that tremendously hard work—the messy and complicated rollercoaster of a living, breathing relationship—onscreen.

The toll that a life takes, together or alone. The way the years add up to a point where some days they outnumber the reasons to stay. The way keeping a family together takes everything you’ve got, but how you still have to wake up each and every morning and find a way to give a little bit more. The way cute becomes cloying, lust wears itself out, and spontaneity gives way to endless routines.

And that silly, stubborn part of you that refuses to let it all go.

It’s like some old Carver story writ large on the silver screen: decent and well-intentioned people accidentally imprisoning one another; a worn-down relationship coming apart at its seams; lost souls drinking a bit too much, caring for each other deeply, but never quite seeming to get it right; an innocent child caught in the midst of two colliding parental orbits.

Blue Valentine traces the flow of a particular relationship—Dean and Cindy’s—showing you it’s bright flickering beginnings and it’s sad, hollowed-out, gut-punch ending. It follows their courtship and conclusion in a non-linear fashion, sublime scenes of those honeymoon-lit first few moments of a new relationship, alternating with the burdensome, claustrophobically sad scenes from that same relationship’s final days. By doing so, the film highlights the painful inevitability of so many of those relationship dances we all try and do with partners that, in the end, are just not quite right for us—no matter how close to right they manage to seem for a time, or how promising the relationship’s start. It’s a seduction and a warning all at once, showing us love in the same ways that Trainspotting showed us heroin: how magical and soaring that first high, how awful and destructive that final crash.

Yet we all try to recapture the magic of love’s first high in some way. And it’s not hard to see why: it’s a magic that moves mountains, creates great art, and starts wars; a magic that allows us to go on, literally—creating new life while simultaneously making our own lives feel worth the living. At its very best, it’s a feeling of everything finally working out. An integration. A completion.

And to lose that—to have it and to know it and then to lose it—that takes something awful out of us. We are never quite the same. We recover, we go on, we heal, but we remember. We beat ourselves up with what-ifs and should-haves, trying to pin down the exact moment where it all went wrong, as if such a singular moment ever existed.

We regret being so vulnerable, putting ourselves out there, and we wonder if it’s ever worth risking ourselves, our hearts, again. (It is.)

It wears us out, love.

It wears us out.