TBT Film Review: A Little Romance (1979)

I recently watched George Roy Hill’s “A Little Romance” (1979) with my parents while home for a visit. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this precocious, absurd, teen love story and romp around France and Italy.

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Honestly, regardless of the merits of the film’s narrative, I’m in it for the style on display here. Not only do you have 1970s-style attire, but you have France and Italy as the primary backgrounds. For an American watching in 2015, what’s not to love?? And did I mention that it stars the young Diane Lane in her first feature?! What a beautiful creature!

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(In fact, this sent me down an early Diane Lane rabbit hole… throwback reviews of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish to follow.)

Let’s begin with its poster. I love this faux impressionist painting of the characters that they used. It strikes me as interesting that the boy and girl are pictured walking away. Even though they’re at the heart of the story, they are turned away from us, seemingly having a private conversation. The only face we see with any detail is that of the old man, played by Laurence Olivier, who aids the kids in running away while sprinkling romantic claptrap here and there.

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To me, it reminds me that the film attempts to be intellectual in some ways—interested more in art and conversation than in the specific young people or simple teenage lust—and, yet, this image can also be seen as rather childish or at least family-friendly. In fact, it could suggest a children’s book cover and seems almost saccharine in tone. I’m projecting a lot onto this image, I know, but I found it interesting on its own and in conjunction with the actual film.

It’s presenting this “little” romance—an adolescent love story in many ways—where two young people meet and quickly become enamored with one another. At that age, the stakes of a new relationship can feel impossibly high; the thought of being separated can feel like the end of the world. I think that overblown idea of romance and fate are very much true to adolescence. Yet, the movie’s devotion to its young people and its rather negative depiction of adults (minus Laurence Olivier) seem over the top. Plus, who is the audience? Teens? Adults? Who knows?!

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These kids are more intelligent than your average adult. Thus, for every emotionally resonant moment about being a teen, there are others that feel discordant. Not that some young people in 1979 weren’t discussing Heidegger—I’m sure they were! But when the boy and girl bond over a discussion of whether or not Heidegger was an existentialist, you know the directors and screenwriters were trying to do… something…

Yet, there are scenes with real immaturity—in the best way possible. In particular, I was captivated by Diane Lane’s nerdy best friend. Pictured below gawking at the nude statue, her character is coltish, awkward, energetic, and not at all chill. In other words, she is a standard tween. She is someone we knew growing up or maybe we were her. She is a phase of female adolescence incarnate.

A LITTLE ROMANCE, Ashby Semple, Diane Lane, 1979, (c) Orion

She wants to know if her friend has actually “seen one” in real life and demands that her friend tell her everything when she finally does “it” with a boy, etc. Despite her’s being a mere bit part, I loved the few scenes with this girl.

A LITTLE ROMANCE, Sally Kellerman, Ashby Semple, 1979, (c) Orion

Plus, we get to enjoy her slow-dancing with this shorty like a boss. Ohhh, that time in life when girls tend to sprout upward before boys and the height discrepancies are off the charts.

Anyways, the story begins with a young French boy in Paris who is obsessed with Hollywood—and in a nice self-referential move by director George Roy Hill, the boy is shown watching Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and seems to revere Bogart and Bacall, along with Redford and Newman. He meets a young American girl (Lane) living in Paris with her flighty mom and reliable step-dad. They meet. They bond. They’re discouraged from spending time together by her parents. She is going to move back to America soon. They have some scheme to make money in order get to Venice and enact some romantic tradition of kissing in a gondola at sunset under a bridge.

Shenanigans ensue. Naturally.

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Roger Ebert’s review from 1979 is surprisingly harsh in my opinion, giving it only 2 stars! His main criticism, however, is not all that surprising. Namely, Ebert feels that by making its kids “impossibly bright and witty and wise,” it loses any sense of plausibility.  Ebert goes so far as to say that the film’s cuteness began to make him “squirm” by taking itself too seriously. I think it’s fair to a point.

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And yet I enjoyed it for its nostalgia, its scenery, and its occasionally humorous and endearing moments. It’s not a coming-of-age movie in the same class as some of its predecessors and it remains overshadowed by the onslaught of ’80s adolescent films that were about to be produced. Nor is it a terribly insightful look at adolescence and the hypocrisy of adulthood. As my mom pointed out, if it were darker in tone, it could seem like something we’d see today from Wes Anderson a la Moonrise Kingdom.

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While not wonderful, it is enjoyable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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