This post is part of Fusion's Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.
A pioneer millennial, I absorbed the culture of Generation X on VHS and syndication. I was 8 when Ethan Hawke coaxed Julie Delpy off the train in "Before Sunrise," 9 when he terrorized Ben Stiller and defined irony for us in "Reality Bites." But the ratings stamped onto these films were incongruent with my parents’ dictates regarding PG-13 and R-rated films. I neither knew Ethan Hawke existed, nor was permitted to watch one of his films until I was 15. As such, my love for Ethan Hawke only burgeoned half-a-decade after his heyday as a Gen-X heartthrob, courtesy of Blockbuster and a tenacious preference for moody intellectuals.
But I met nineties-era Ethan at the perfect moment. It was my sophomore year in high school — nearly winter, I think. I primarily migrated between states of sadness, euphoria, and longing; I was desperate for the attentions of a clever, guitar-playing senior who had already made it clear he wasn’t interested. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness took up residence in my head after months of devoted replay. At night, I busied myself with the activity of having New Deep Thoughts and scribbling them in my diary. Lovelorn and dewy-eyed, I was primed for Hollywood to distort my preconceptions of romance.
One night during a sleepover, a friend suggested renting the "Great Expectations" adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella and Ethan Hawke as Pip — though in this film the character is rechristened “Finn,” a far sexier nickname. But that night, Ethan was the only name that mattered. Ethan with blue eyes and firm shoulder blades skimming against his threadbare tee-shirts. Ethan who ambled across rooms as if he were liquid, who summoned expressions of desire that rendered him—or so it seemed—childlike in both vulnerability and acquiescence. Charles Dickens might say that, before the film ended, “I loved [him] against reason, against promise…against hope.” I would simply say that I was smitten.
Since that fateful evening I have dedicated myself to the earnest study of Ethan’s oeuvre. And through the years I’ve been charmed, again and again, by his handsome face—now cut and angled with maturity—and the coarseness inflecting his otherwise boyish voice. But my inclination to rewatch his nineties films largely derives from a peculiar nostalgic ache. Once upon a time, I sought romance that blossomed from the wounds of overwrought and feverish entanglements — the sort of bitter romance that Ethan’s characters court. I located love in gestures and choked sentences, both gentle and brutal. My stomach contracts when, in "Reality Bites," Troy Dyer cradles Lelaina’s (Winona Ryder) head, caressing her to the rhythm of their lovemaking—I’ve wanted you like this for all these years—and the next day, hurtles himself off of a stage to pursue her. "Before Sunrise"’s Jesse secures my adoration in the first minutes of the film, when heeding the siren song of chemistry, he begs Céline, a stranger, to pass the day in Vienna with him. And I’m fairly sure I came of age when I watched Finn bound maniacally through the streets of Manhattan to seize Estella from her fiancé and, subsequently, share with her that unslakable rain kiss. (Please note: my mother and I listened to the accompanying music, Patrick Doyle’s “Kissing in The Rain,” nearly everyday for at least a month.)
I reveled in these passion-oriented narratives that seemed to embody my most mawkish, flustering desires. “I’ve wanted you like this…”? I cannot examine this sentence structure too closely, lest my feminist sensibilities split my skull. And yet, it was the torment of protracted longing, paired with bald-faced pursuit that bewitched and exhilarated me — and that, in my estimation, Ethan alone could convincingly portray. The sadist in me relished his yen, his misery. After all, a girl who perceives herself as unwanted will cleave to fantasies of someone wanting her too much. Troy, Jesse, Finn, they were imperfect, arrogant—sometimes abjectly cruel—but they would desire without reservations, “against reason,” and they would cherish the agony. I, in turn, willfully ignored the inherent catastrophe of this romantic narrative. I wanted a love as anxious and quixotic as me.
Of course, Ethan’s appeal is specific to a demographic of middle-class white femininity — those of us with the privilege to scorn the modern milieu while anticipating our own dreamy train rides across Europe. Or, like Lelaina, to impulsively quit a job, expecting that another as prestigious and relevant will be readily available (Work at the GAP? Please.) I might never have stolen a Snickers bar, but I certainly had the time to hash out why the world owed me one. It had not yet occurred to me—nor did it for some time—that the world owed me nothing whatsoever.
So perhaps it is fitting that my fantasies glorified erotic precariousness. Neither Ethan’s characters nor their contexts promise romantic stability — stability of any kind, for that matter. They either cannot or will not ensure a steadfast and enduring union. Jesse and Céline (Julie Delpy), each returning to their respective, distant homes, fall in love after passing one day together in Vienna. They resolve as Céline departs for Paris to reunite on the same train platform in six months, and the film never pretends that either party is guaranteed to keep this promise. "Great Expectations" gestures to Finn and Estella’s eventual union with optimism that Dickens does not offer in the novel. The film concludes as they join hands, smiling at the horizon, and yet their bodies remain cautiously separate. With such a poisonous history, we cannot be sure that they can heal together. Troy, the most defiant of the three, emphasizes to Lelaina that he will never yield to her terms; he may, someday, run away, leaving her to mourn and despise him. But the egomaniacal assertion that follows underpins the relationships in each film. “You know I’m the only real thing you got,” Troy proclaims.
In my adolescence, the only realness that held my interest was the realness leading to the first kiss — the chemistry, the overwrought conversations that seemed to ensure mutual understanding. I had not yet committed myself to anyone—I didn’t care to—though I willingly pined over someone who did not want me while anticipating future Ethan-esque romances. What was most real in love was potential, whether viable or a fantasy I stubbornly hoarded: the potential in an amorous encounter, in the emotions that engendered sexual potential in the first place. But in practice, realization of possibility meant that we had succumbed to erotic charge, not that we had embarked on a steady relationship. Too often, I shied away from a kiss because I preferred anticipation to fulfillment that I assumed would disappoint.
Ethan’s characters dwell in this heady, starry-eyed potential. It’s not so much that they do not contemplate the future—although Troy, in his nihilism, is disinclined—but that their character arcs trace a plot propelled by unfulfilled desire. To watch Ethan perform this alloy of misery and rapture conjures a fantasy of its own. He wears his character’s longing conspicuously and without shame. It settles in his eyes; it sets the pace of his stride. It manifests itself even as, in the case of both "Reality Bites" and "Before Sunrise," the character himself espouses distrust of himself, social conventions, and every apparatus of modern culture. The most rigid skepticism never trumps the chase for a perfect moment.
It is this simultaneity of disaffection and romantic pursuit that draws me to Ethan’s Gen-X characters. And to some extent, this is not surprising. There is a self-indulgent appeal in being the exception to someone’s rule of disenchantment. Even Finn, determined to regard his opportunities in New York as mere entitlements, indications that the wealthy, exquisite Estella is his rightful partner, cannot but behave as a worshipful hand servant. When they finally make love, Finn’s first inclination is to pleasure her exclusively (this is not a bad thing); Estella must stop him so that they can mutually enjoy one another. Boorish though he is, Troy lapses into idealism when he tells Lelaina that they could live happily together on “a couple of smokes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of conversation.”
But even more bewitching is how the characters’ suspicious worldviews and bald-faced passion never shatter into incoherence. "Before Sunset’"s narrative mechanism ensures us this pleasure. We divine glimpses of the Jesse that Céline has barely met: self-absorbed, unwilling to suspend disbelief for a few sweet lines of street poetry, and malcontent with what he believes to be true about the world. Yet, as he passes the day with Céline, he enacts the very romantic optimism—the trust in vague hope—that he would seem to abjure. Intrigued by their immediate connection, Jesse entreats Céline, a stranger, to join him in Vienna. That night, he declares that if he could either marry her that moment or never see her again, he would with question choose the former. And as we learn in "Before Sunset," he is the one to return to the train platform six months later.
None of this is to imply that it is universally or inherently attractive to view the world with a skeptical or, in Finn’s case, opportunistic eye — the latter especially is off-putting, at least to me, and chronic skepticism can be aggravating after some time. Ultimately, what is comforting about Ethan’s characters is their promise of a certain paradox: that we can exist as jagged emotional and philosophic fragments while still maintaining coherent identities. When I encountered Ethan, I finally understood that we can hold contradictory views and acknowledge conflicting emotions without contradicting who we are as people.
Understanding this was crucial to me; it still is. Large-scale expressions of goodness consistently surprise me, because I do not trust the world to be good. I anticipate betrayal, however ludicrous the context. But despite the protests of my teenage self, I will always be a romantic. If I love Troy and Jesse, it is less because I’m drawn to difficult men; the attraction is more boldly narcissistic. For all their faults and peccadillos, they reveal the possibilities in fundamental contradiction — that the sum of our parts is weird and misshapen, and that we are better for that. We cannot rely on internal consistency to access ourselves; we must slip into the gaps, grasp at the edges, and finally understand that we will never add up neatly — we have no choice but to be more than what we see.
And so, as I watched "Great Expectations" that first, indelible time, I marveled at the fissures rendering Finn so erotically palpable. Like Troy, Finn never conceals his desire or his pursuit—he is relentless, dogged—and yet in his most meaningful encounters, he cedes to soft, childlike vulnerability. Early in the film, Estella visits his house, her glamour excruciatingly discordant with the ramshackle surroundings. She stands over him, urging him to touch her; he does. Pressing his fingers between Estella’s legs, he is near tears, overcome by her permission and her pleasure. He would be an idiot to trust this moment as anything other than what it is—he must know that—but we never need regret bliss gone sour. What is most real will not always promise happiness, but its imprint will always be ours.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a contributor and columnist at Jezebel. She has also written for the LA Review of Books, Pacific Standard, the Rumpus, and a variety of other places. She lives in Washington, D.C.