I remember my first gay relationship, but I can’t remember with whom. I don’t know his name or what he looked like. I don’t even remember where he lived. There’s no lingering scent, no sweater he left behind, no string of texts to remind me that I didn’t just imagine it. Why? Because I never met him. But he was there, he existed – and he made me feel less alone, less isolated and less not-normal every time he called me.
We connected in ways I couldn’t with anyone else then. I was only 14 and grappling with my sexuality, and he showed me, simply, that I could just … be. It was a meaningful connection that, because of time, almost escaped me until I saw Spike Jonze (“Adaptation.,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) explore a similar relationship in his bizarrely heartfelt and thought-provoking sci-fi romance “Her,” the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a letter writer who falls for a woman who lives in his computer.
She’s an operating system, designed to fill the void of actual human interaction. Her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and she’s a lot like Siri, except that – because this is the very near future (in a very posh-hipster L.A., by the way, where all men are hot Urkel nerds) – she isn’t just a portal for information. She feels. She even sorta has sex. But without a physical body, the act of intercourse is challenging, and Jonze – in a scene that’s unforgettably off-kilter – gets crafty and does something simultaneously out-there, but also surprisingly lamentable, that makes bot sex achievable. Jonze’s comedic and poetically earnest script brims with this palpable intimacy, most of it emotional, as Theodore and Samantha bond in a way that almost seems as authentic as any relationship – except that she’s, like, not real.
A recluse who’s in the midst of divorcing his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he’s experiencing a rebirth. You see it in his smile as he joyously does circle spins in the middle of a crowd, you hear it in his laugh when she illustrates what anal sex with an armpit looks like, you feel it when he tells her, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I’ve loved you.”
It’s a more accurate statement than even he may realize: Theodore is in love with someone/something that, in all actuality, doesn’t exist. And yet, there she is, and there he is, and there they are together. Becoming the sort of every-person, the wounded teddy bear whose desire for something more is easy to identify with (I can think of several occasions where I would’ve liked to tell my iPod what he tells his: “Play melancholy song”), Phoenix really gets to the core of Theodore’s heart, drive and empathetic sensitivity. Every moment with Samantha is real, because those feelings he feels? They’re real to him. Johansson, as Samantha, has never been better, and that’s without ever appearing on screen. It’s just her voice, but a voice that finds the soul in the soullessness of a computer. There’s no way to forget Samantha.
Jonze, who’s written and directed a profound post-modern meditation on the pursuit of human connection, is forcing us to think about our own lives, the way we relate to each other (and don’t), and how technology has brought us, and will continue to bring us, closer and further apart.
I know it made me think. It made me think of those vague-but-significant phone exchanges I had when I was just a teenager coming into my own – and how technology, despite its serious effect on all of our lives, can never replace a real embrace from a friend, or a real kiss, or a conversation with a real person who makes this big, bad world seem not so big and not so bad.