Ruby Sparks is an independent film praised by critics and viewers. It has a 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the same people who directed the acclaimed Little Miss Sunshine, and written by Zoe Kazan, the woman who plays Ruby. Much like Little Miss Sunshine, this film stars Paul Dano. But instead of a moody teenager, he plays a young novelist, Calvin Weir-Fields, dealing with a overwhelming success, writer’s block, and anxiety related to women. My parents recommended this movie to me when I came to visit, and I should disclose that Dano’s character was my LEAST favorite part about Little Miss Sunshine, but I was more than willing to give another character of his a chance.
Note: The following will contain spoilers.
When Dano does a writing exercise for his therapist, he writes a narrative about the perfect woman. Her name is Ruby Sparks. She’s an artist. She’s quirky, and she’s got red hair, and purple tights, and she likes his dog, even though it pees like a girl. If you’re not a total n00b at Internet feminism by now, you’ll recognize this archetype as the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Calvin thinks it’s some of the best work he’s written in a while until his brother points out that he doesn’t know shit about women and that there’s no girl out there like he describes…which makes it really weird when she appears one morning in his home.
But Ruby is her own person. She has her own tastes, interests, and a desire for independence. She’s also way too good for him. This is something Calvin can’t deal with, or thinks he can’t deal with, until he realizes he can control her by writing about her. When she suggests they spend one day a week apart, he writes that she is miserable without him. When she becomes too clingy in his company, he gets on his typewriter to reverse that. When she feels out of sorts, he writes that she is filled with happiness. But when she is too obnoxiously giddy, he tries to bring her back to normal, so she can go back to owning her own feelings again. This results in her simply feeling lonely and unloved.
The film comes to an upsetting head when she finally threatens to leave him for good and he reveals his powers to her. But he reveals them by making her unable to leave his home. When she keeps trying to exit the room it becomes clear that Calvin is not done with her yet. He sits at his typewriter and makes her speak French. He makes her crawl on the floor, bark, strip for him, and do other humiliating acts. When Ruby finally collapses in exhaustion, Calvin realizes he’s done something despicable and writes that she is free of him as soon as she leaves his house. When he wakes up in the morning, she is gone. At the end of the movie we see him with a successful new novel called The Girlfriend, and the movie closes with him finding Ruby on the grass in a park. She doesn’t recognize him, or remember him. He is stunned. She’s reading his book. They have a flustered moment before she says, “Can we start over?” and the grateful smile on Calvin’s face implies that they indeed do.
The reason for why I am not convinced that he learned his lesson is because the film makes it too easy on Calvin by granting him a second chance before he’s even proven to the viewer that he’s changed. Inviting him to start completely anew with a clean slate and no consequences is letting him off the hook. Calvin is an abuser. And when an abuser wants a second chance he should earn that shit, and the movie should make him earn it. Not to mention, when Ruby finds out he has been writing about her, she makes it very clear that she is not okay with this, saying, “You can’t write about me. That’s private.” What does he do immediately afterward? He goes ahead and writes about her anyway. Even with the names changed, it’s already a violation of her boundaries. But somehow it’s okay because his new novel gets critical acclaim and she has amnesia? As far as earning that second chance goes, he’s not off to a good start.
Secondly, feeling bad is not the same thing as personal growth. In fact, abusers feel bad all the time. It’s part of the cycle of abuse. What scenes do we see at the ending? Calvin feels sad and alone. Calvin participates in a bonding activity with his brother. Calvin celebrates the success of his novel. (Success, by the way, is yet another thing that should not be confused with personal growth.) Calvin visits his therapist. These are the same exact scenes the movie opens with. What’s different about it?
In the scene where the abuse comes to a head, where Calvin makes his girlfriend sing and strip for him against her will, tears running down her face. He doesn’t let her leave his home, he writes her shrieking, “You’re a genius! You’re a genius!” and makes her jump up and down till exhaustion—this is literal abuse. But the abuse isn’t just in his voodoo writing. It appears in lots of normal ways too, like when he calls her a slut, or when he gets angry with her for violating his “unwritten rules,” or when he grabs her wrist and doesn’t let go even when she tells him, “You’re hurting me!”
Yet somehow Calvin is still redeemable in the end. We’re supposed to like him, even. This is how the film drags the viewer into the cycle of abuse along with Ruby. We forgive him, just as Ruby forgives him. We want him to have his second chance. We believe that he can change. But there’s really no evidence to suggest that Calvin has improved. Who is to say he won’t be abusive in the more traditional, non-magical ways, especially considering we’ve already seen him do it?
If this had been a movie about a man who forced his girlfriend to strip for him, who intimidated her, and hurt her—if this had been a movie about a man who beat his girlfriend with a complete absence of a magic typewriter—the audience would be FURIOUS at the ending. They would see him read an excerpt from his book amid a beaming audience and feel sick. They would see him approach her on the grass and say, “GIRL, WATCH OUT!” At the end of the film, Ruby Sparks 2.0, with no real memory of him and what he did to her, squints up at him from her patch of grass and says, “You look familiar, do I know you?” Yeah honey, he’s the stuff of your nightmares. He’s why you feel triggered when you hear the chunky keys of an Olympia typewriter.
What’s even more interesting is that Ruby, in her journey to becoming a real person with agency and thoughts of her own, is relegated to an archetypal role at the very end. Her memory erased, she is simply a love interest. The same sort of stock character that makes the male lead stop and stare. Who is she, if she’s no longer Ruby? What is her story, you wonder. Who cares? That’s not important. The film closes without answering these questions. When Calvin sees her, he sees Ruby. When the audience sees her, this is who they see as well. She’s little more than a prop, made to help realize his ending. The movie was never about her. She is used and abused for the sake of him supposedly become a better person. But is she free? Not within the confines of the film, she isn’t.
I can’t tell if Ruby Sparks is extremely self-aware or just unaware enough to screw up what it’s trying to critique. Dayton and Faris obviously want to unpack the Manic Pixie archetype. But the film’s treatment of Ruby at the very end, and the fact that the audience is meant to sympathize with Calvin, both make a good case that Ruby Sparks follows in the longstanding tradition of films like Crash or Argo, films that attempt to tackle big issues, but which lack the self-awareness to do it effectively. Films where viewers walk away with a feeling that they have learned something, but in fact have learned nothing.