True story: I didn’t watch Say Anything (1989) until this past September, when John Cusack came to town to do a Q&A after the screening. After years of hearing about the film and being asked why I hadn’t seen it yet – including one friend who told me I was dead to him (sorry, Mark) – I finally got to witness it. I’ve heard a ton of criticism regarding Cusack’s character, Lloyd, in his pursuit of dream girl Diane Court (Ione Skye). Here’s where I’m going to differ greatly from the criticism: Lloyd isn’t the one we need to be worried about – it’s Diane’s dad, James (John Mahoney).
Backing up a bit, let’s talk about Lloyd. Common criticism: he’s a nothing-special guy who somehow convinces class brain Diane to go out with him, and borderline stalks her after they break up. Lloyd doesn’t have much going for him: he’s not getting top marks, he’s not getting into the best schools, he doesn’t have a solid job lined up, and he’s pretty unclear about where to go, be it the workforce or the military. What we do see of Lloyd on his own is pretty reassuring. Lloyd babysits his nephew frequently, providing a buddy-like companion to the very young child of his stressed, single-parent sister Constance (Joan Cusack). He has harsh words for the caddish Joe (Loren Dean) regarding the emotional games Joe plays with Corey (Lili Taylor). Rather than shrug off his responsibilities to hold the keys of partygoers, he holds onto the bag of keys so that no one drives home drunk, despite that he really wants to spend time with Diane. He teaches little kids how to kickbox. Most of all, this is a kid who thinks long and hard about his future and expresses a desire not to become part of the corporate machine (as evident in his famous “I don’t want to sell anything” speech), but to spend as much time as possible with Diane, the person who matters to him. And when she dumps him at the behest of her father, he refuses to bash her to the group of guys gathered around him, who offer up revenge plans designed to nurse fragile egos (“Man, all you gotta do is find a girl that looks just like her, nail her, and then dump her, man.”).
Diane’s father James, on the other hand, has the titular policy with his daughter: that she can tell him anything… but really, he’s more of a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy. Diane’s whereabouts and aspirations must be conveyed to her dad at all times, from going out all night to pursuing a fellowship. On the surface, this appears to be a concerned parent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, the crux of this comes in what her father doesn’t say: even when pressed, he won’t confess to embezzlement, and places pressure on Diane to dump Lloyd so that she doesn’t get distracted from her academic and implied long-term professional goals. Even when Diane explicitly asks if the ongoing criminal investigation into her dad’s financial dealings is rooted in fact, he chooses to lie to her and push her toward her fellowship in England, urging her to dump the supportive guy who’s been teaching her how to drive and socially interact. In fact, it’s this push that really takes a turn for the sinister when he tells Lloyd, “You’re not a permanent part of her life. You’re a distraction.”
It’s that sentence right there that got me thinking: what if Diane wasn’t the antisocial brain by choice, but one driven to that path by her father? She admits early on that she didn’t know anyone in her graduating class until the party, indicating that she has not gotten the chance to socially interact with her classmates. There’s wanting the best for your child, but demanding extreme transparency, limiting age-appropriate social relationships, and refusing to be honest regarding a far-reaching legal matter that could very well implicate her as well paints a pretty gross picture of a controlling parental figure that wishes to remain number one in his child’s life. If there’s no Lloyd, then Diane will keep towing the line to meet her dad’s expectations and find someone her father deems an appropriate mate. The problem with that line of thinking is that the person some deem best suited is actually not the best match at all. In total frankness, men in the late 1980s were far more commonly focused on their women propping them up to pursue their dreams. Hence, if Diane met someone at the fellowship, his goals are going to matter more, and she’ll be expected to be the one who maintains the household while he pursues his dreams, all while serving as the intellectual sounding board that furthers his career. And while James can criticize Lloyd as not having much going on in the life department, he is all about Diane’s aspirations. True, you could make the argument that he’s setting up a meal ticket, but Lloyd Dobler goes all out for Diane: he embraces her work at the senior center because it matters to her; he teaches her how to drive because she doesn’t know how and wants to learn; he’s willing to drop everything and go with her to England because he wants to support the woman he loves; he doesn’t blink twice when presented with going to see her father in prison to talk with him because it’s horrifically painful for her, and he wants her to have that sense of closure before a huge milestone. For the love of all things holy, if you find someone who is that focused on your wants and dreams – who remembers the damn song that was playing when you first had sex, that overlooks a convicted felon of a family member, that would rather spend their time with you than making someone else richer – then you’ve got a good egg on your hands right there. Diane has dreams, and Lloyd sees her as a person with dreams; therefore, he wants to move heaven and earth for those dreams to come true. And you do not throw someone like that away – or encourage someone you love to throw away someone like that – unless if you’ve got a serious problem with being top priority without any questions asked in return.
In the end, women don’t lust after Lloyd because he stands with a boombox outside of a window – women want someone who is going to be there, who is going to be our ride or die buddy that wants our happiness more than their own pride. Diane’s dad trying to undercut that type of love – something so many people in the world would love to have, that dream of having someone like that in their lives – points toward a toxic parent/child dynamic. For a first-timer, the dynamic was creepy in its evident isolation of a brilliant young woman who happens to find someone who loves her far more than he loves a sense of being personally uplifted. When you find someone that wants your dreams to happen that badly, hold onto that; it doesn’t happen every day.