I don’t normally write anything that is not directly related to my research area, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a trope that has caught my attention over the last couple of years. Here, Dominic Kelly writing in The Guardian describes the character as “a recurring trope in the romantic genre, [who] are happy-go-lucky, free spirited, criminally underwritten co-stars who exist solely as a vehicle for the stuffy, angsty and usually white male lead to discover himself and appreciate the wonders of the world”. He also provides useful examples, including a clip from Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005), a film which inspired Nathan Rabin to come up with the term in a review. How frustrating and limiting a character the MPDG can be from a feminist perspective is clearly elucidated by Anita Sarkeesian’s video on Feminist Frequency.
Zoe Kazan, who is mentioned in Kelly’s article, attempted a dark exploration of the destructive and dangerous desire for such a quirky, free-spirit in Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2012), which she wrote and starred in. Whilst making a valiant effort, her plot focusing on a writer (Paul Dano) suffering from writers’ block who discovers that he can create his dream girl (woman isn’t appropriate in this instance) and control her behaviour, the result was flawed. It did disturb and challenge, but it didn’t quite go dark enough and by focusing on the male adventure, albeit trying to complicate it with considerable moral dilemmas, it still stayed within the realm of the other films with the MPDG trope. In many respects the parody of the phenomenon by the Natural Disastronauts is a deeper challenge to the trope, albeit still played from the male perspective. You may think you want a MPDG, but look how much you don’t, appears to be the message of both.
Gus Van Sant’s film, Restless (2011), at first, seems to wander into this terrain. It is the story of a damaged young man, Enoch (Henry Hooper), who meets a kooky young woman, Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), who changes him. So far so MPDG. However, over the course of the narrative it becomes apparent that Annabel’s eccentricities are down to her resilience and need to hold on to some lightness in the face of her terminal brain cancer and Enoch is a deeply damaged individual who deeply traumatised, having been in a traffic accident where both of his parent’s were killed. He is isolated and alone, with an aunt who he blames for the accident as his carer, and the ghost of a Kamikaze pilot as his constant companion.
Both characters are deftly written by David Lew and it is their shared sadness and oddness that brings them together. Enoch manifests much of the MPDG behaviour, he operates outside the conventional rules, they meet when he is attending funerals of people he doesn’t know, he has an imaginary friend, he draws chalk lines around his body simulated those drawn by the police of murder/accident victims, and so on. None of these has the lightness of the MPDG and are tinged by the shadow of death that hangs around him. Annabel is lighter, dresses in 1920s style (rather than the 1950s style favoured by the MPDG), and encourages Enoch to embrace life. This is not as a kooky draw to the ephemeral, but a desire to hold on to life. She too has the shadow of death around her, which is part of her initial attraction for him, but she is keen to dispel it. His toying with death is brought into sharp relief and he is made confront it, repeatedly. For example, he has to come to terms with the fact that the funeral they met at may have been an opportunity for him to indulge an obsession with death, for her, it was an occasion of real loss, it was of a fellow cancer patient. She seeks affirmation of life from him through their mutual attraction, whilst he gradually evolves into a functional individual better able to embrace normality.
The characters do behave eccentrically and the script plays with the tropes of the MPDG, but it does so in a film tinged with loss and mourning. These characters behave in this way, in part, because they are in their late teens and are holding on to a childishness that speaks of a before (the death of parents, diagnosis), and is a way of dodging death and longing that otherwise dominates their lives. The characters are damaged and the eccentric behaviour is shown as a way of surviving pain (physical and psychological). This film engages with many of the tropes of the MPDG, displaces it on to both the male and female characters and suggests an alternative way of creating more engaging and evolved female (and male) characters.