Stubbornness has its charms. Many a romantic heroine — Elizabeth Bennet and Scarlett O’Hara among them — would name her mulish intractability as her most lovable trait. In a film with an exceptionally callow worldview like “Endless Love,” though, devotion just looks like naiveté.
Director Shana Feste’s slick but ardent teen romance (co-written by Feste and Joshua Safran) asks us to believe that its heroine will be stubborn forever. The problem is, we know better.
Under different circumstances, blue-collar hunk David (Alex Pettyfer) and Ivy League-bound Jade (Gabriella Wilde) might be a couple worth rooting for. But their budding relationship is confined to the two weeks between high-school graduation and the start of Jade’s prestigious internship out of state. Time isn’t the only threat to their love; her stern father Hugh (Bruce Greenwood) disapproves, too.
It’s easy to see why David has had his eye on Jade for the past three years, yet never spoke a word to her. After her brother’s premature death two years earlier, she became a school pariah. In response, she developed the kind of precocious poise possessed only by children who spend too much time with their parents. Jade is sweet and thoughtful, but her self-confidence and joie de vivre are almost intimidatingly forceful. When David finally dares to show her the slightest interest, she responds by throwing a party just so she can invite him.
While Pettyfer delivers the puppy eyes, Wilde keeps “Endless Love” from drowning in a vat of schmaltz. Coyness is in Jade’s repertoire, but she has no patience for it. After the domineering Hugh asks David to leave, she invites her new boyfriend back into the house at night and welcomes him in her nightgown. “I can wait,” David reassures her, afraid to pressure her. “I don’t want to wait,” she replies.
They enjoy a postcard courtship, falling in love via montage. It’s never clear what David and Jade talk about, or even what they specifically like about each other, but they’re both so complementarily gorgeous it doesn’t really matter.
Pettyfer and Wilde have just enough chemistry for the film to hit all its emotional marks during the first two acts. There’s even a mature wrinkle of a subplot involving Jade’s mother Anne (Joely Richardson), a writer-turned-housewife who comes to realize how empty her marriage is by observing the mutual adoration between her daughter and her first love.
But Hugh won’t let the young couple enjoy their infatuation. He’s never one-dimensionally evil, but having already lost a son, he refuses to let go of his daughter. As Hugh’s attempts to drive David and Jade apart become more outlandish, the film falls apart and loses its greatest asset — Jade’s plucky independence — to a melodramatic showdown between the two men.
(Fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 original will have guessed by now that Feste’s very loose remake is even further distanced from the original novel by Scott Spencer, sharing only the title and a few of the character names.)
The truth that “Endless Love” never acknowledges, though, is that Hugh is ultimately right to encourage their break-up, even if his tactics are odious. When Jade goes off to college, she’ll become a different person — hell, she’ll probably become three different people by the end of freshman year. The film’s insistence that Jade should and will love David forever thus feels retrograde, especially for this subtly progressive character, for it frees her only to imprison her in a different cage.
Despite its purity of feeling, “Endless Love” is both a salvo against personal evolution and a paean to the foolish conviction that love comes first, and growth second.