Bent, not Broken: 5 Love Stories for Damaged Romantics

Inspired by my finally getting around to watching the excellent Silver Linings Playbook, here are five of my favorite stories about couples that help each other overcome emotional traumas. We’ve all got all issues and movies like Silver Linings remind us that we’re not just carrying our own baggage, but our partners’ as well. Grab your partner, some popcorn and some Prozac and snuggle up with one of these off-beat romances.

Black Snake Moan (2007)


If you haven’t seen this movie, chances are you’ve at least cocked an eyebrow at its salacious, grindhouse-style DVD cover, depicting Sam Jackson shackling a partially-nude white woman (Christina Ricci) to himself with a heavy, iron chain. You get everything promised by that cover and a bit more in this movie.

Ricci stars as Rae, a sex addict in rural Mississippi whose only support system is her boyfriend, Ronnie. Possessed of few options for making better lives for lives for themselves, Ronnie (who also suffers panic attacks) joins the military. Ronnie’s departure sends Rae on a drug and alcohol-fueled binge, careening from one reckless sexual encounter to the next, a spiral that ends with her beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. She’s found by an old blues man named Lazarus (a haggard Sam Jack), who chains Rae to his radiator and charges himself with curing the girl of her unholy affliction.

Black Snake Moan is as crass as advertised – you’ll see lots of Ricci’s titties – but it ultimately humanizes the main character by showing the emotional pain her sex addiction causes her. In contradiction to its grindhouse aesthetics, Moan handles Rae’s illness with an empathy and dignity rarely shown in media – her urges strike her with terrifying suddenness in moments of emotional distress, triggering memories of past traumas. Trust me, these scenes won’t titillate you. Moan looks and feels like an exploitation film but its handling of the subject of sex addiction (not to mention it’s racially-charged setting, the rural South) is pretty grown-up.



Welcome to the N.H.K (2006)!.full.621488

22-year old Tatsuhiro Sato is a “hikikomori”; an unemployed recluse that has withdrawn almost completely from the world beyond his front door. Suffering from severe depression and paranoia, Sato believes an agency called the Nihon Hikikomori Yokai (the titular “N.H.K”, a riff on the real-life Japanese network) is at the heart of a conspiracy to turn people into helpless hermits by manipulating the media. During a rare venture outside, Sato is befriended by Misaki, a girl who claims to be working with a charity project to rehabilitate hikikomori. The real reasons for Misaki’s interest in Sato is a mystery, but her obsession with his rehabilitation and her penchant for lying reveal she’s got her own issues.

Adapted from Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s novel of the same name, N.H.K is a dark comedy that treads some bold territory. The show is defined by Sato’s repeated, hopeless attempts to connect to people: along the way he tries to become a hentai game designer, gets lured into a pyramid scheme, accidentally joins a suicide party and becomes obsessed with an MMO. In the meantime, Sato’s paranoid delusions play out in stylized sequences that are both hilarious and at times heart-breakingly authentic. The show will hit close to home with anyone that’s dealt with anxiety and depression.

The 24-episodes maxi-series format gives the story room to delve into a variety of topics. Sato is the main focus of the story,  but the series explores the troubled lives of several of his young friends living in Tokyo, including the hentai-obsessed Yamazaki and the suicidal Hitomi. Hikikomori (“pulling inward, being confined”) is a real-life phenomenon estimated to affect 700,000 people in Japan, though it’s cause is unclear (attempts to cure Sato and the unknown cause of his condition is a running theme in the show). N.H.K tackles the subject of mental health from a variety of angles, making it unlike any other series I’ve ever seen.



Castaway on the Moon (2009)


I stumbled across this movie randomly on Netflix and enjoyed it a lot. A product of Korean writer/director Hae-jun Lee, Castaway is the 2nd movie on this list that tackles hikikomori, giving us some idea of the prevalence of the phenomenon throughout Asia and its relevance in the cultural thought-space (the increasing isolation of young people was also a central theme to the 2001 Japanese horror movie Pulse, later adapted for American audiences).

Drowning in debt, Kim Seung-Keun throws himself off a bridge over Seoul’s Han River, only to be washed up onto a small island in the middle of the bay. Seung-Keun becomes a castaway in plain sight: the island is surrounded by the many high rises that dot Seoul’s skyline, but he’s unable to attract help or manufacture a way back to civilization. Finally forced to eke out on an existence on the island, Seung-Keun’s plight catches the interest of Jung-Yeon, a reclusive girl who watches him through binoculars from her high rise apartment. Jung-Yeon sleeps on the floor of her closet and otherwise occupies her time photographing the moon or playing the Second Life-inspired “Cyworld” on her computer. Finding a kindred spirit in Seung-Keun, she considers venturing from her apartment to connect with him.

With Seoul as a backdrop, the concept of feeling both crowded and estranged is a recurring theme as both protagonists are sort of hidden in plain sight of a teeming city. It’s easy to get sucked in by the charming love story that develops between two people the rest of the world has been content to forget about.



Garden State (2004)


Andrew Largeman (“Large” for short) dreams of being on a crashing plane, gazing around apathetically as mayhem occurs all around him. It’s a metaphor for his life: numbed to indifference by the stockpile of anti-depressants that pack his medicine cabinet. Large awakes to the news that his mother has passed away, prompting a journey home to New Jersey that reunites him with high school buddies and his father, a psychiatrist. It’s also the first time in years that Andrew’s been off his anti-depressants, but he still sleepwalks through life, even while experimenting with ecstacy at a party. Andrew runs into Sam, a bubbly pathological liar with epilepsy. Sam’s earnestness encourages Andrew to open up and he begins to experience something real for the first time in years.

Written, directed and lead by Scrubs‘ Zach Braff, folks my age will remember Garden State fondly as a sort of generation-defining movie that was among the first to speak earnestly to an audience of chronically depressed and hyper-medicated 20-somethings. Based on Braff’s own life, the movie holds up better than some will claim. Despite its on-the-nose, college mix-tape soundtrack and an insufferably adorable Natalie Portman, it manages several moments of honesty (one of my favorites is when Andrew hugs Sam’s mother and lingers just a bit too long—a subtle, but moving touch by Braff).



Moonrise Kingdom (2012)


Set on the sleepy island of New Penzance in 1960’s New England, young love blossoms between 12-year-old pen pals Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop. Misfits who seem more put-together than the adults around them, orphan Sam’s only family is the Khaki Scout troupe he belongs to while the moody and introverted Suzy longs to escape her broken, yet sterile, household. The two make a secret pact to escape together and hike into the wildnerness to find their Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise has the distinctive look and feel of Wes Anderson’s deconstructed Americana and will probably be liked or disliked on those grounds, though it’s probably the most approachable movie in the Anderson catalog. The movie features a class of stars that includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Anderson regular Bill Murray, but the young actors playing Sam and Suzy carry the movie. Ultimately it’s the simple story of two misfits who find kindred spirits in one another that make the movie so fun and accessible.




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