7 indie romcoms that aren't 500 Days of Summer

Thank you for your service Zooey Deschanel, but here's some fresh alternatives.

by Douglas Greenwood
01 February 2022, 7:00am

The romantic comedy movie has always been box office catnip; a surefire bums-in-seats winner to rake in the big bucks. That came down to its foolproof formula: boy-girl meet-cute, the two fall in love, fall out of it, and then come back together again, either as a couple or amicable friends. But by barely deviating from it, the genre feels a little dog-eared now. Thankfully, indie studios have managed to inject smart, new life into the genre.

Over the past decade, the cheugy classic 500 Days of Summer has become everybody’s favourite alt romcom, pairing the familiarity of banal couples humour with that torrid feeling of your life being torn apart by someone you thought loved you. But my god, time has passed! Morrissey is problematic! We’ve come to appreciate the toxicity of this dynamic, instead of idolising it! Zooey Deschanel’s fringe may stay the same, but myriad indie movies are doing the romcom as good -- or even better -- than 500 Days of Summer did.

So, from contemporary Norwegian cinema through to timeless 1960s classics, here’s seven indie romcoms that helped turn the genre on its head.

1. Valley Girl (1983)

Long before Mean Girls made the high school romcom a hot ticket, Valley Girl showcased the ditz, playfulness and downright heartbreak of teenhood in 1983. The movie takes us to the Valleys outside LA — duh! — where the reigning queen of her year, Julie, decides to dump her comparatively annoying and boring boyfriend. Later, she runs into Randy, a punkish lad played by our king Nic Cage, who alters the course of her life. They fall for each other — two polar opposite personalities in the high school ranks — and so have to contend with the snootiness of Julie’s friends from the upper echelons to make it work. It walked so Mean Girls and Clueless could run.

2. The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

In 2017, Netflix dropped this New York romcom executive produced by and starring Jessica Williams, the then-twenty something actor and podcaster who’d made her mark on everything from Girls to The Daily Show. In this, she plays a lovelorn Brooklynite, balancing her work as a theatre instructor with her yearning to be back with her handsome ex (played by LaKeith Stanfield). But her perspective widens when she runs into a wiser, older man, played by Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd. The pair begin a sweet love affair, bonding over the weirdness of past relationships. This is a sweet entry into the indie romcom canon, under-seen but worth your time.  

3. Beginners (2010)

Anyone who’s fallen for the irresistible charms of Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon will be happy to know he has a history of releasing tender, smart and perfectly-formed cinema. Though he’s been working for decades now, one of his most beloved movies is Beginners: a film about a man — Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, reckoning with the recent coming-out of his elderly father, and how they both navigate relationships in the aftermath of that revelation. It is, like a lot of Mike Mills’ films, partially autobiographical: after his mother died, his father came out as gay. Christopher Plummer, who assumes that role in the film, won an Oscar for his fine work. 

4. Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

Something of an anti-romcom, Desiree Akhavan’s celebrated debut is a study of bisexuality and Persian heritage in New York. Written, directed by and starring Desiree, it captures the aftermath of a break-up through the eyes of Shirin, a woman whose girlfriend has just left her. What ensues is a pursuit to get said ex-girlfriend back, while also trying to explain the semantics of her relationship to her family, who don’t know about her bisexuality. If you’re tired of the saccharine, feel good stuff, here’s something funny that deals with love through a different lens.

5. The Graduate (1967)

Dustin Hoffman appeared in this romantic classic, playing a 21-year-old college graduate whose aimless existence is given a spark of new energy when he’s seduced by a family friend, a housewife in a loveless marriage. But once he’s in her grasp, he soon catches eyes with her daughter, and the object of his affections soon switches. At the time, The Graduate was released by an independent studio, directed by Mike Nichols, known for his compelling but never flashy storytelling. When adjusted for inflation, the movie grossed $857 million, and has since been added to America’s National Film Registry.

6. Sleeping With Other People (2015)

Before Leslye Headland co-created the Netflix show Russian Doll, she made a Sundance romcom hit. Released in 2015, Sleeping With Other People stars Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as once-upon-a-time college hookups who reunite years later having been through tumultuous relationships of their own. Together, they realise they have their own problems, and have to wrestle with the mounting chemistry between them, knowing they’re better as friends. Finally, a recognisable rom-com that turns the tropes on their head.

7. The Worst Person in the World (2022)

The newest entry in our list drops shortly (in US cinemas 4 February via Neon; in UK cinemas 25 March via MUBI) but is already rightly being hailed a modern classic. This film by Norwegian director Joachim Trier tells the story of Julie, a millennial woman trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do with her life, all while falling hopelessly in love with a man who may not be what she’s actually looking for. Told over the course of four years, we watch her attempt to navigate adulthood, her myriad passions and occupations, and romance. It’s all laid out in a reassuring manner that will make you realise we all have the same intrusive feelings of unworthiness as we grow up. Blissful, smart, pretty damn close to perfect.