In the movie 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb creates a scenario that is all too relatable as a young man struggles to understand the concept of love and friendship and how the two are connected or disconnected. The movie is so highly relatable in fact, that theories of human interpersonal communication can be found throughout the entire film.
As the character Tom copes with the emotional roller-coaster that is Summer Finn we can dissect almost every move that is made using concepts taken from interpersonal communication and ways that he could have avoided or eased the situation. As I analyze each aspect of the film it is important to remember that this film is based on the idea of a friendship that never fully develops into a full romantic relationship, skipping some steps that typically happen in relationship development.
In chapter nine of our text we learn about interpersonal communication in close relationships. In the movie we see a relationship between Tom and his younger sister Rachel immediately as the film begins. In the idea that Family Communication is Role-Driven, it is stated that the norms of family roles are largely important in how we communicate (Adler, Ronald B., Proctor, Russell F. 2014. Pg. 285). This idea is based on the stereotypical view of each member of a family and focuses on brothers and sisters developing strong bonds up into adulthood. The relationship between Tom and Rachel is anything but the norm of an average family.
When entering the scene Rachel is portrayed as one of the only people suitable to relieve the heartbreak that is happening to Tom, showing us that the sibling bond between the two is something even his friendships can’t compete with. The role of Rachel to Tom can be seen as the fixer in the family, or as the one who sees things much clearer, a realist of sorts. This is contradictory from what we usually know to be the role of a younger sister in American families. Tom is portrayed as much more of a dreamer and romantic than Rachel which is highly unconventional.
In one scene Rachel tells Tom, I know you think that she was the one, but I don’t, I think you’re just remembering the good stuff, next time you look back I really think you should look again, This is a major shift in the film where Tom remembering Summer goes from happy to dark. Rachel is seen as the voice of reason to Tom, and someone he can rely on to keep him moving and motivated. The use of a character like Rachel is usually portrayed in films by friends of the main character and very rarely do you see a sibling bond in which a younger sister is helping her brother to discover the world in a new light.
The stages of Relational Development never go past Intensifying in this film as it is clear that the character of Summer is not looking for a serious relationship to develop. Intensifying is defined as the stage where expressions of feeling towards each other start to show. We can see early on that the relationship is filled with flirtation by both parties and nonverbal ques that act as emotion filled signs from one to the other. The first real time we can see this in the film is the Ikea scene.
As summer and Tom skip happily around Ikea, holding hands and showing signs of happiness and being pleased with the other such as smiles and making the other one laugh, they develop from small talk into this stage where they feel they know each other and can have a good time together. However, as relationships are constantly changing, we see a shift from scene to scene of this intensifying stage becoming stronger and then fading out altogether.
We can see a return to the Intensifying stage once more as Summer and Tom attend a wedding together after losing touch for a while and begin acting as though nothing between them has changed. This scene is characterized by flirting, teasing, dancing, and nonverbal ques such as smiling at one another and staring into each other’s eyes. This return to this intensifying stage comes only after we see the shift in the relationship that brings them to the avoiding stage, making it especially hope filled for Tom and the viewers as they feel the couple might have another chance to make it after all.
Avoiding is characterized as one or both parties began to lose interest in the relationship and often begain spending more time apart from one another. This can first be seen when Tom looks back on the relationship and is reflecting on the bad instead of the good. Summer seems distant and passionless as Tom tries to joke with her in the record store. She begins losing interest in the small things they once enjoyed together and eventually decides its best if they stop seeing each other and just remain friends instead. One key factor of avoiding is using excuses to distance oneself from the other.
Summer uses the excuse I’m just tired when confronted about her decision to go home instead of spending more time with Tom. Avoiding is shown again after this in an email by Summer in which she reply’s I can’t this weekend but maybe next. I hope this means you are ready to be friends. The use of an email is highly impersonal which shows the veiwer that Tom and Summer have not seen each other in a while proving that avoidance is at play.
A constant theme throughout the film is listening. Tom has friends and a sister whom listen to him and give him good advice, but Tom is often misheard or even ignored purposefully by Summer. In the types of ineffective listening, Insulated Listening is when the listener is quick to avoid conversations leading somewhere that they do not care to partake in, often changing the subject or ignoring it all together. In a scene where Tom is eager to find out what their relationship status was, Summer quickly shuts him down by replying, Who cares.
I’m happy, aren’t you happy? This not only avoids the conversation, but it also redirects the conversation so that Tom feels trapped by his answer. If he answers no, it is untruthful as he is happy, but by answering yes, he is agreeing to avoid the conversation and putting it off to a later time never receiving the validation he needs. A key part to Insulated listening is the fact that the listener often responds to the question with a verbal or nonverbal que but then is quick to forget or move on from the subject. In this case Summer turns up the music in the car and begins singing and joking around with Tom as if the conversation never started.
However, Summer is not always a bad listener. We see her use mindful listening on more than one occasion and using the listening process element of responding by asking questions, nodding her head in an agreeable fashion, and offering advice. The Responding stage of the listening process is the stage in which a person uses verbal or nonverbal answers to let the speaker know that they are paying attention. Responding follows remembering in the listening process as the listener must first retain critical information in which to respond to. When the two first meet at a work party small talk ensues. Summer is quick to ask thoughtful questions about Tom’s life and respond in order to get to know him more and show her interest in the conversation.
She asks Tom, You’ve always wanted to write greeting cards? and as he replies, No, I don’t even want to do it now, Summer is quick to give advice by replying, Well you should do something else then. This leads to a conversation about Tom’s passion for Architecture in which Summer is very responsive and involved in the conversation.
This type of responding has an impact on Tom as he feels better understood and full of hope, so much so in fact that as Summer walks away he quickly grabs a piece of paper and a pencil and starts drawing buildings. This shows the true impact of mindful listening and how responding to others can shape them in a way that mindless listening cannot. Summers responses must take careful listening in order to be given. This is seen by Tom as someone truly listening to him and creates the beginning of the trust and admiration he has of Summer throughout the film.
As Summer and Tom build a relationship and start to connect, it’s important to note that they also struggle to see eye to eye and deal with conflicts in a healthy manner. One challenging task for Summer is overcoming defensiveness and using face-threatening acts in order to establish the dominant position in the relationship. Face-Threatening Acts are described as any message that challenges the image we want to project (Adler, Ronald B., Proctor, Russell F. 2014. Pg. 319). For Summer this image is one of a strong women who doesn’t believe in love and doesn’t need a man in order to be happy.
The first scene where viewers are able to see this is the Karaoke scene where Tom asks Summer about love. She quickly puts her guard up and challenges him by asking him questions in which question his belief about love. For Summer however, this is her projected image and she feels as though she must protect it by becoming defensive and letting others be aware of her stance on the subject. Other small parts in the film show Summer reacting to love as some sort of a virus and avoiding the idea of it altogether. Summer however, is not the only one that used the face-threatening act as a means of protection.
Towards the end of the film, heartbroken Tom choses this defensive attitude when confronting summer about her choice to marry another man. Tom states, you never wanted to be somebody’s girlfriend and now your somebody’s wife I don’t think I’ll ever understand that. Tom is defensive about her decision to not be with him because his ego is hurting and justly so. Tom is desperately trying to maintain his image as being strong while the conversation is devastating to his ego. At one point even turning away as to show the viewers he was hiding his tears from her. An emotional Tom can be seen throughout the film, spilling his love for a seemingly heartless woman, and trying to convince her love is real, and it’s what they share. Face-threatening acts are just one way Tom tries to protect himself from pain and protect his self-image.
Disagreeing messages are messages in which one person tells another they believe them to be wrong. This message communicates that you are not satisfied with what the other is saying.
Tom can be seen using this in arguably the most emotional scene in the film, the scene in which he is trying to convince Summer that they are more than friends. Tom states, This is not how you treat your friend. Kissing in the copy room? holding hands in Ikea? shower sex? common, friends my balls. Tom is using a disagreeing message in order to let Summer know that he doesn’t agree with her idea of what friends are. Without the use of this disagreeing message things would likely continue on the path that they were before as Summer may not be aware that Tom wanted more out of their relationship.
Disagreeing messages can be both helpful and negative. The negativity of this message was that Tom was hostile and created an environment in which Summer likely felt trapped and made to answer to him rather than expressing himself in a healthier manner. Another infamous scene of this film in which Tom choses to use a hostile disagreeing message is at his work meeting when he rants on about how they are liars as greetings cards writers and eventually quits his job. Tom stands up and states, This is total shit. These are lies, we are liars. Tom creates a scene in which he is against everyone and fighting a battle seemingly alone. Again, the hostility makes the situation worse than it could have been had he just stated that he disagreed in a less argumentative fashion.
Conflict and differing conflict styles can be observed throughout the film. The most destructive of these conflict styles are The Four horsemen. In the case of Summer and Tom the most prevalent of the four horsemen is Stonewalling. Stonewalling is when one person purposely withdrawals from an argument or conversation leaving the other to feel ignored or as though they don’t matter. In the caf?© scene where Summer is breaking things off with Tom, a visibly upset Tom sits as Summer exclaims Let’s just eat and talk about it later, and then goes on to describe her meal and how satisfied she is.
This shuts Tom down from continuing the conversation and in true Summer style allows her to have control over the conversation and ignore certain aspects that she dislikes about it. This ignores the feeling tom has and makes him feel unsatisfied with the resolution of the argument. Although the argument has ended for now, Tom gets up and leaves the table without saying a word as he too partakes in the act of stonewalling. Throughout the film Summer is seen exiting situations she is not happy with by just walking away. Stonewalling shuts the other person down and creates tension that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Bedsides Stonewalling, this film also gives us a good understanding of the conflict style of Accommodation. Accommodation occurs when one person allows the other to win an argument without fighting for what they believe. Although Tom seemed to have plenty of opinions throughout the film, he did little to fight for Summer and little to align his expectations with his reality. One of the heightened points of this film come as Tom attends a dinner party in which is really an engagement party for a soon to be wed Summer and her fianc?©. Tom arrives with hope and the screen splits to show his expectations and realities not aligning.
Tom never gets what he wants and sacrifices a lot of himself to an unapologetic Summer. Tom is accommodating to summer by not standing up for what he wants throughout the film. He is letting her do as she pleases and use him to keep her company. In the dinner party scene Tom should have confronted Summer and should have opened her eyes to what she was doing to him. Toms accommodating conflict style leads him to get walked over time and time again by Summer until finally she breaks his heart.
This film is realistic because it involves many interpersonal theories and idea that we see every day in our lives. We can all relate to a Summer, a Tom, or even a Rachel. We can see ourselves in these arguments and feel the heartbreak that Tom endures. Films like this help us understand human nature. They give us something to relate to and to use as a therapy for times when we feel lost and unsatisfied.
When we finish watching a film such as 500 Days of Summer we are inspired to tell people how we feel and to communicate clearer with those we love. We learn to not take those who stand beside us for granted and to appreciate the little things they do for us. Films like this are art. They are made to relieve the stress of everyday life and to convey an emotion that we feel so deeply. Without films such as this our world would feel unrelatable and unbalanced. The story of Summer and Tom can teach us a lot about interpersonal communication and can help us to deal with this situation better if we should ever find ourselves in a similar situation.
Film Analysis: 500 Days of Summer. (2019, Mar 19).
Retrieved October 21, 2021 , from
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