It’s been fascinating for my brother Ben and I to read the reviews to our debut feature film Nina Forever. Getting all these good reviews is obviously nice, but even in the occasional bad review the critic has generally got what the film is about, it’s just not been for them.
That said, there has been the occasional response to it which hasn’t quite got what the film is trying to do, which has been very interesting to us. These are the guys expressing disappointment that Rob’s storyline doesn’t do much, little realising that the film is all about Holly, not about him. I don’t think that’s actually because of any male-centric thinking. I think it’s because, as an audience, we’ve become very used to a certain type of romantic movie.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
You know the trope - a guy needs to get over something, be it a former girlfriend or just the ennui of 20-something life. He meets a girl who is kooky, wacky, fun, full of life. With her wonder powers, she helps him get into a better mental state, after which the story is complete and her existence ceases to be important. She can leave, disappear, die, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the boring white guy no longer feels quite so filled with ennui.
Ever since it was identified and so memorably named by Nathan Rabin, there has been a good amount of criticism of the MPDG - all surrounding the sense that the only thing wrong here is that the girl doesn’t have an inner life.
Which is weird when you think that generally, the main guy is pretty dull. I mean, the actual appeal of these types of movies isn’t really the main storyline about getting over ennui. That’s a pretty obvious character arc: 1) he’ll get over it, 2) he does, 3) the end.
The appeal of these films? It’s about the girl.
And not just for guys, hoping that someone like that could come and rescue them and help them become better, or relating to something similar having happened to them. It’s also for the girls who see the romance in bringing about change in someone. I’ve been in both situations, and the really compelling thing is how fucking great it feels when you help someone be more the person they always wanted to be, help them find their inner happiness. Helping each other is an incredibly sexy wonderful thing that grabs us all.
So the odd thing about these movies is that they all focus on the boring white guy.
For Ben and I, when writing Nina Forever, we wanted to explore the fundamental question that MPDG films don’t ask - why is she interested in him, why does she want to help him, what makes her stick around?
This is the heart of Nina Forever.
Holly could be seen as an MPDG - here’s Rob, in a dark and desperate place, suicidal after the death of his girlfriend Nina. Holly arrives, and is determined to help him. This resolve is tested it to the extreme by having Nina arrive, bloody and fucked up, like she was in the car crash in which she died.
Most girls would run and never return. So what keeps Holly coming back? This was what made it feel like we were writing a new, unique and interesting film. Rob’s character arc was always apparent and well explored in many other movies. And as far as character arcs go, well, Nina’s dead. She doesn’t get to have one, and comes to accept that. Holly, however, will be changed fundamentally by her experiences of helping the one she falls for.
Since the MPDG was identified, it has been explored in many ways. 500 Days Of Summer showed how much the idealisation was a figment of the guy’s imagination. Ruby Sparks showed how all of the characters writers create really desire an inner life. However, the film that sits most uncomfortably with me out of all the MPDG films I can think of is also my favourite. In Search Of A Midnight Kiss is a great little movie. It’s stayed with me. Partly, I think, because the ending makes me feel rather uncomfortable (spoilers over the next five paragraphs).
You see, Sara Simmonds’ character is more than a MPDG. She has an inner life. She is pregnant, by an abusive boyfriend, and in meeting Scoot McNairy’s character this is a small respite in a life that is full of momentous decisions she is currently avoiding, but will soon have to make.
And yet the film ends without her. Not with them together. Not even with Scoot’s character deciding to help her. No, he lets her go, off to face an uncertain and potentially fraught future, and the film ends on him, having shaken off his ennui, looking forward to his life.
I couldn’t help feeling that the film wanted me to think that this meant everything was good. I didn’t see any regret from him, any sense of “I shouldn’t have let her get away” or “I could have been more empathetic towards her life-changing decisions”, or even any sense of guilt, of “phew that could have been really heavy and it’s a relief I don’t have to take on that life… Oh hold on, does my lack of empathy make me a bit of a dick?”
No, it seemed like life was now fine for him.
The film felt all the more heartbreaking precisely because it did give the girl an inner life. Indeed, because it showed how much more interesting her story was, and how small the “he’ll get over it” storyline really is. And yet, it made the man’s emotional well-being the main storyline. It certainly kept me thinking - about his lack of empathy at the end - about how I wanted to know more about her - about how helping other people is such a large part of love.
Nina Forever hasn’t come about directly because of our thoughts about the MPDG. But it certainly brought into focus what we were most interested about in this magic realist story of grief and love.
Holly is more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but her desire is the same - to help the one she adores and make him feel whole again. We’ve just always wanted to root the story into explaining her desires, her motivations, and why she’ll be changed forever thanks to giving someone all of her love.
It’s great to be part of a new wave of films who are making female roles the lead character. From the upcoming Ghostbusters through Trainwreck and so many of our fellow FrightFest films such as Sun Choke, Final Girl and Body, you can see audiences are really enjoying having women as the dramatic centre. Hopefully filmmakers are finally looking at who’s really got the most interesting story, regardless of gender, and running with it. I can assure you, it’s exhilarating if you do.
Check out the trailer for Nina Forever below:
Nina Forever is currently screening at Vue Shepherds Bush, London, for one week only.
Thanks for watching!