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Nobody Thinks It Will Work, Do They? ‘Say Anything…’ Turns 30

Released in 1989, Cameron Crowe’s portrait of teenage love and rebellion is full of grand gestures, great music, and note-perfect observations about growing up in America. And the John Cusack–Ione Skye romance still resonates today.

20 Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Thirty years ago Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… arrived in theaters and ushered in a different sort of Hollywood teen romantic comedy. Far from the typically callow and horny figures that had tended to populate youth movies of the era, Crowe’s characters were fully formed, culturally sophisticated, and appropriately skeptical of the prismatically daunting future that lay just ahead of them. On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, here are nine snapshots of a near-perfect picture, whose contemporary resonances make it feel far closer to our current moment than its release date might suggest.


Lloyd

”I want to get hurt!”

The heedless declaration of Lloyd Dobler, graduating high school senior, aspiring kickboxer, and indefatigable romantic. Determined to steel his nerves and ask out the girl of his dreams, even as his dearest friends caution him that this is an overreach. Ready to be hurt, if that is what is required: an emotional Pickett’s Charge.

Lloyd, who is liked by everyone, but whose true confidantes are exclusively female: Corey and D.C., and his sister Constance, a single mother with whom he resides. Lloyd, whose parents are apparently alive but mysteriously absent. Lloyd, who plays guitar and loves the Clash and is committed to the proposition that he can somehow recognize his goals by dint of moxie and benign persuasion. He doesn’t want to get hurt—not really—but with the last summer before college pending, he calculates that the time to acquaint himself with Diane Court is growing short.

So begins the major action of Say Anything...

Diane

A high school graduation on a late spring Seattle day. The city’s now-brilliant, now-overcast majesty on full display from the Aurora Bridge to Capitol Hill. Here is Diane Court, the stunning but painfully shy super scholar, unknown to her classmates except by her immense academic accolades. Amid graduation’s sundry antics and jubilation, she delivers a disquieting speech punctuated with the sentiment: “When I think about the future, the truth is, I am really scared.” The assembled classmates and their families murmur uneasily. Lloyd Dobler enthusiastically nods in approval.

Diane, who seems not to have any friends her own age, or really any friends at all besides her father. Diane, whose mother is distant and estranged. Diane, who decides to go out on a date with Lloyd, though she can’t so much as conjure his image after four years of school together. An impulse decision fraught with ramifications.

When the high school principal at the graduation introduces her, he is rendered near speechless by the sheer magnitude of her résumé, achievement after achievement. She is touched with greatness. She is so afraid.

Diane Court, buttoned-up, university-bound valedictorian, and Lloyd Dobler, aimless romantic and cultural refusenik, are about to fall in love.

Jim

Jim Court, Diane’s doting father. An affable, empathetic, and companionable single parent, preoccupied to the point of obsession with his daughter’s future. A love so consuming that he has begun cutting ethical corners at the nursing home he runs, with an eye toward vouchsafing her well-being. Isn’t the elder-care business essentially the province of a living saint? For the endless compassion he provides, can he not be forgiven for a misplaced comma or two in his accounting? Not for him, but for his daughter!

Witness his unbridled joy when he receives the news that Diane has been accepted for a prestigious fellowship in England. Watch him bound through traffic—if one can conceivably bound while driving a car, this is what he does—tunelessly and exuberantly singing along to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” To see that joy is to understand the self-delusion that has brought him to his current state of peril. But make no mistake, he is in nothing less than peril. Under siege, on not one collision course but two. He is about to run afoul of the IRS and he is about to run into Lloyd Dobler.

“I Can’t Work for That Corporation”

The first meaningful confrontation between Jim and Lloyd occurs over an introductory dinner, during which Jim rather reasonably asks Lloyd what he expects to do with his future, and Lloyd responds not with a plan but a worldview, indeed a sort of Gettysburg Address of noncompliance:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

It’s a beguilingly nervous homily illuminating Lloyd’s knee-jerk tendency toward radical honesty. Three decades later, it is even more painfully naive than Crowe probably intended when he first wrote it.

Lloyd and Jim are very different. In contradiction with Jim’s carefully curated version of Diane’s future, Lloyd does not have a future. He is verbally acute, sharp-witted without meanness, passionate, clever, and kind. But there are many things he fails to see the point of. College is one of them, career planning of any kind another.

But Jim and Lloyd are also the same, in the most crucial manner possible. All of their hopes and aspirations run directly through Diane. Their worldviews may be competing but their endgame is identical. As she prepares to depart for England, both see themselves as the planet that deserves to orbit closest to her. In their zeal, neither bothers to grasp the acute hurt that being forced to choose between them causes her.

Seattle

Among other things, Say Anything… is a fascinating case study of the split-down-the-middle nature of American cultural life at the time of the film’s release. On the one hand, the election of George H.W. Bush the previous year seemed to signal a continuation of the aggressively corrupted optimism of the Reagan era. On the other hand, something was roiling beneath the surface that would soon send paroxysms through the marketplace. It’s a duality present in the movie’s genial if schizophrenic soundtrack, which nonchalantly juxtaposes the to-the-rafters shredding of Joe Satriani’s “One Big Rush” with the self-effacing, lo-fi indie of the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach.”

It is no accident that Say Anything… takes place in Seattle, which would very shortly prove the staging ground for the sea change most readily associated with Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Sub Pop Records. You remember or you’ve read about it: out with khakis and in with flannel, muddy guitars replacing glimmering synths, or, more darkly, heroin and high-end coffee instead of coke and Diet Coke. With his next picture, 1992’s Singles, Crowe would formally assert his status as midwife to this changing of the guard. With Say Anything…, the underground would take a tentative step toward the obliterating light of the mainstream.

No small part of the charm of Say Anything… comes from the guilelessness of Lloyd’s utterly sincere belief that opting out is truly an option. No doubt it was a sentiment shared by the tight knit arts scene in that emergent port city in those early, heady days. That Seattle would prove to be best known as ground zero for something else entirely—home to Amazon and Microsoft and the forces that would lay waste to any dissident opponent of our omnipresent corporate-tech duopoly—is a rich irony perhaps intentioned and anticipated by the filmmaker, or perhaps not. (Cameron Crowe did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

“You Can Say Anything to Me”

If there are any films better at representing the roller-coaster vagaries of teenage love than Say Anything… the list is a brief one. Though she loves him, the pressure on Diane to break up with Lloyd is immense. Her father is desperate, hunted. IRS agents come to their door and make accusations against him she cannot believe. He asks her only this: to make a clean break of her former life, to attack her new challenges in a new setting with a blank slate. To a teenager the request is unreasonable. To an adult and a parent it is fully rational and caring. This is something Say Anything… does brilliantly and a reason it rewards repeat viewings. It is the story of young people, but as you get older, you come to understand the motives and sentiment of the older players.

The titular line derives from the promise that Diane can say anything to her father—she awkwardly does so when first revealing her affair with Lloyd—but the transparency doesn’t run both ways. The betrayal Diane feels when discovering her father’s criminality registers as the kind of bone-deep shock that occurs only once or twice in anyone’s life, the sort that leaves permanent scars.

The most poignant scene in Say Anything… comes toward the end when Jim has been incarcerated for tax evasion and Diane and Lloyd drive to see him in prison. This is just before she is to leave for her fellowship and presumably the last chance Jim will have to see her for years, if not longer. But she is too disillusioned and can’t face her father—his misdeeds and lies—so she sends Lloyd to speak with him instead. She could say anything, but she has nothing to say.

“The Rain on My Car Is a Baptism”

Give him this: Lloyd really is a good boyfriend. A lifetime of being surrounded by gifted and strong-willed women has given him an appreciation for how to treat them with respect, decency, and deference. We know this because of how he treats Diane when they are together, but also by how he reacts when she breaks up with him. Baffled and stunned, he drives the soggy streets of Seattle monologuing into a handheld tape recorder. To the tape recorder, he flirts with a tough-guy persona—world-weary, calloused by hard experience, a noir detective from a Chandler novel. This is what he tells the tape recorder about himself:

“The rain on my car is a baptism. The new me. Iceman. Power Lloyd. My assault on the world begins now.”

Though he is conjured, Power Lloyd does not emerge. At the local Gas & Sip he consults a number of deadbeat classmates who like to hang out and drink beer in parking lots about their strategies for dealing with girl problems. “Bitches, man!” they console him. Also: “They spend your money and they tell their friends everything! It’s about economics!” And: “Your only mistake is that you didn’t dump her first! Diane Court is a show pony. You need a stallion!”

Lloyd is not consoled, and this marks the ending of his brief investigation into the diseased labyrinth of toxic masculinity. He may not fully understand the reasons for his estrangement from Diane, but he knows the struck-dumb ravings of his blinkered peers won’t get him any closer to that truth.

Cameron Crowe

The 32-year-old writer and first-time director of Say Anything…, coaxing brilliant performances from each of his leads: Ione Skye as Diane, John Cusack as Lloyd, and the great John Mahoney as Jim. So assured in his narrative acumen and visual vernacular that he seems almost to have internalized the craft by osmosis from his executive producer and mentor, James L. Brooks, whose wonderful pictures Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment exist in a similarly rarefied place of deep human empathy and effervescent levity. Crowe, who famously wrote for Rolling Stone when he was 15, and later re-enrolled in high school and authored the book that provided the source material for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Crowe, who was charged with providing the liner notes for Bob Dylan’s then-career-spanning box set Biograph in 1985, and accomplished this with grace and rigor, at a time when Dylan’s career was a difficult thing to reckon with. A chosen one. After Say Anything… the sky was the limit.

But limitless promise is its own impossible burden, and like Orson Welles himself it seems Crowe has ever since wrestled with the consequences of making a near-perfect movie on his very first try. Singles was a spiritual sequel and an in-the-moment cultural bellwether, which brought to bear any number of imitative Gen X mood pieces and maybe birthed Friends. But the paucity of authentic human behavior in the picture—replaced, it seems, by a series of staid early ’90s gestures—is striking compared to its predecessor’s unvarnished compassion. It’s not a bad film, but it feels dated and contrived in a way Say Anything… never could or will.

From there Crowe’s films become stranger: larger in scale, technically accomplished, but somehow ever less intimate. 1996’s Jerry Maguire tackles the world of big-time sports as seen through the lens of Tom Cruise’s disillusioned titular agent, who laments Dobler-like in a galvanizing manifesto: “We live in a cynical world.” But the movie traffics in a kind of cynicism as the protagonist manipulates his clients, his colleagues, and even his love interest in various Machiavellian ways that would have been unthinkable to Lloyd.

Even in the case of his semiautobiographical roman à clef Almost Famous from 2000, Crowe seems crossways with his former empathy. That film is derived from his real-life experience covering an Allman Brothers tour for Rolling Stone as a teenager, and yet the film is both overly romanticized and utterly grotesque—all indulged rock stars throwing tantrums and exploiting teenage groupies, as though this were somehow something to be regarded as laudable rather than wretched. For all the dinosaur-rock-era revisionism on display, it’s like Joe Strummer never happened at all.

The point here is not to indict Crowe’s later films so much as to wonder what changed. He owes no apology. One near-perfect film is more than 99.9 percent of us will ever make.

“You Just Described Every Great Success Story”

The most iconic scene in Say Anything… is the one in which an exhausted and lovelorn Lloyd, bereft of better ideas, stands outside Diane’s bedroom window with his boombox blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in an effort to break the spell of her father’s disapproval. But the most romantic, to me, is the final one. Diane is heading to England on her fellowship, and the victorious, valorous Lloyd is with her. Diane is terrified to fly—she is really scared—and Lloyd is talking her through the logistics.

Lloyd: All right, high-level airline safety tips. If anything happens it usually happens in the first five minutes of the flight, right?

Diane: OK.

Lloyd: So when you hear that smoking sign go ding you know everything’s going to be OK.

Diane: Good to know.

Lloyd: All right, I’m just going to keep talking until that ding happens, which is going to be soon.

Diane: OK.

The obvious cinematic reference point is Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross on the back of the bus, having made their great escape in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. But unlike that clash-of-generations antecedent, the last notes here are not anxious or ambivalent, but rather rousing and triumphal, a long-shot romance that beat the odds and fled those who would undermine it. A love story that rings as clear and true as a bell.

Ding!

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.