We turn to movies to see life reflected back at us. Usually it’s with more attractive people involved, but the point remains that even if the action is set in faraway lands we’ll never visit, or realms that only exist in the imagination, we look to films to find traces of ourselves in someone else’s story.
But sometimes it gets too real. Sometimes, quite frankly, you just can’t bear to look at that shit. It’s too close to home, it’s too awkward, too painful. There’s a tipping point between enjoyable-cringe and unbearable-cringe — and that’s what we’re going to talk about right now, so be warned: These are going to hit you where it hurts.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020): The Dinner Scene
Charlie Kaufman’s hot-off-the-presses new film at Netflix has left a great many people scratching their heads, but before it can get to its twist ending (that you still need to google to understand, since it was adapted from a book), it’s a somewhat typical examination of a bad romance driving straight into the awkward zone.
Jessie Buckley’s character knows she’ll soon break off her relationship with her new boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, but before she does, she’ll accompany him to dinner at his parent’s farmhouse. Mom (Toni Collette) is an eager-to-please airhead with a nervous laugh and the world’s phoniest smile. Dad (David Thewlis) seems like a pent-up rage case who’d probably say some truly nasty things if he had one thimbleful of booze. The boyfriend shuts down during a cartoonishly abundant meal (other than to sigh at his parents’ gaffes), leaving Buckley out in the wind to suffer this uncomfortable weirdness alone.
On the off-chance my in-laws are reading this: No, I do not mean them, but, yes, I think most of us have been in a “meet the parents” situation where we’ve realized, my God, these people exist on a different planet than I do, how the hell do I get out of here?
Diner (1982): The Records Scene
Diner is one of the all-time great “hangin’ out” movies, and if you haven’t seen it, definitely put it high on your list. Barry Levinson’s nostalgia trip was the first serious gig for Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin. (Mickey Rourke was already in Body Heat, so we can’t call this his breakout.)
It’s all about the transition from youth to adulthood and the easy mistakes many people make. Its masterpiece scene — truly one of the most “holy shit, I’ve been there” moments in movies — is when Stern and Barkin’s newlywed characters are coming to the realization that they just aren’t right for one another. Stern is an anal-retentive music nut (raises hand) who files his records in his own proprietary way. Barkin doesn’t get it. It starts out as typical sitcom dialogue, then takes a hard turn into genuinely painful emotion.
He laces into her about the way she put back a James Brown record, and Jesus, he’s being a real dick about it. She lets him know it. But you know something? It’s important to him. And she oughta respect that, even if it’s silly. (Especially since it truly comes from a place of love.) It’s an example of two people in an argument both being right and both being wrong. And anyone on the outside can recognize that they just should call it quits.
Swingers (1996): The Answering Machine Scene
The world isn’t a happy place for those who have no chill. Jon Favreau’s answering machine apocalypse in Swingers is the platonic ideal of no chill.
I’m old enough to have seen Swingers in a packed theater on opening weekend, and let me tell you, to sit in a room with hundreds of strangers, all of us repulsed by the agonizing lack of chill depicted here, is something I shall never forget.
They say we’re hard-wired to cringe at the sight of spiders. Watching Favreau self-destruct after getting a cute girl’s number, only to collapse after a slight technical glitch (I contend that his first follow-up call is still allowable!) is like drowning in a tank of tarantulas.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): The Jackin’ It Scene
The kids today don’t know. Sex positivity and self-care wasn’t a thing in the 1980s. If you admitted that you engaged in the sin of Onan, you were a loser and a creep. To get caught choking the chicken was a nightmare from which you couldn’t wake up.
To get caught doing it by the very object of desire that erected your initial fantasy? Well, I suspect this is still embarrassing today. I wouldn’t know; I’m not a dunce like Judge Reinhold — I always remembered to lock the door.
Eighth Grade (2018): The Pool Party Scene
Your body is changing. You don’t look right, you don’t feel right. You’re awkward and unsure, but everyone keeps telling you to “be yourself” even though “yourself” is awkward and unsure. But you take a deep breath and decide you will go and socialize with the other kids who, if they ever deemed to notice you, could easily turn your life into a howling abyss with one stray remark or chortle.
And the best part: You have to do it nearly naked.
This is what going to a pool party is like in the eighth grade. Why on Earth do parents allow this torment?
Hail The Conquering Hero (1944): Kinda the Whole Movie
White lies: They’re a part of life. After he was discharged from the Marines due to chronic hay fever, Eddie Bracken’s Woodrow told his mother he was overseas, then laid low at a shipyard. But one night a sextet of well-meaning Guadalcanal vets make a phone call saying the boy’s coming home, and it leads to a cascade of misunderstandings. Woodrow’s given the key to the city, his widowed mother’s house has been paid for by the celebratory crowds and soon he finds himself a candidate for mayor. In between the blocks of extremely clever dialogue (and romantic scenes with the striking Ella Raines) there’s the nausea that comes as the screws of comeuppance make their slow turn.
All you want is for nice Woodrow to fess up immediately, but the chaos and momentum of a town seized with Messianic fervor don’t give him an opportunity. There’s some great commentary in here about hero worship and our need to create myths, but there’s also that terrifying hum that grows louder when you know you’ve truly goofed up and know that eventually you’re going to get caught.
Bananas (1971): The Buying the Nudie Mags Scene
I repeat: The kids don’t know! Years ago, if you wanted to look at images of naked people, you either had to go to an art museum or buy printed pornography. It wasn’t easy. There were shops that specialized, but in some of the finer cities, the smut would be in there right beside other publications. (You could go to a bus station and buy a copy of Hustler — to read on a bus. Maybe you can still do this, I haven’t looked in a while.)
Anyway, totally non-controversial filmmaker that few have an opinion about, Woody Allen, in one of his “early, funny ones,” lampooned this situation. What he really wants is a copy of Orgasm, not National Review, and he almost gets away with it, until the cashier with the booming voice blows up his spot.
Fargo (1996): That Weird Meet-Up With the “So Lonely” Guy Scene
I can’t even watch this.
I’m proud to say I’ve never been in this breathtakingly awkward of a social situation (in Mike or Marge’s seat), but we’ve all been there when we decided to “shoot our shot,” even though all logic told us not to. Or maybe we’ve been the one getting hit with that shot, and wondered just how the hell we were going to get out of there without making the person feel worse.
Ugh, is the video still going? I can’t bear it.
Note: The lounge pianist is playing “Sometime in Winter” by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Good song. Let’s focus on that.
Bridesmaids (2011): The Speech-Dueling Scene
Kristin Wiig and Rose Byrne are too funny in Bridesmaids to make this sequence unwatchable (and let’s not forget Maya Rudolph and Tim Heidecker with the reaction shots), but their comedy hints at a bigger truth. It feels really rotten when you think you’re someone’s BFF and discover they’re “cheating” on you. This is an under-explored universe of interpersonal relationships. You might think it’s immature to call it a betrayal, but exclusion always hurts, so should it happen to you, it’s best to approach it head-on. Though not on someone’s big day.
There’s Something About Mary (1998): The Franks and the Beans Scene
Thank every deity out there that, no, I’ve never trapped my genitals inside a zipper. But I have — and probably you have, too — done really stupid shit where you need help, now, and from anyone who can give it to you. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by a group of people, each offering their own opinion, yet you’re the one who has to decide who to listen to. Maybe it’s figuring out what to do with a busted piece of equipment, or some furniture you just can’t fit somewhere, or how to rapidly rebook a flight in the middle of a busy airport when you’ve just landed and missed your connection. Or maybe it’s your date’s parents and a fireman coming to gawk at your nuts. Either way, it’s unpleasant, and Ben Stiller evokes that sentiment quite well in this scene I never want to see again.