This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost.  I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

herSpike Jonze’s Her is a distinctly modern romance. It’s between a human and a computer, after all. More specifically, it’s between a man (Theodore, played by Joachin Phoenix) and a computer operating system, albeit one that is conscious, capable of self-awareness, and, as voiced by Scarlett Johansson, richly expressive. The story is certainly about our relationship with our devices, but still has the flavor of a traditional tale of intimacy and growth. As Leah Reich wrote for The Atlantic, “Her is less an examination on the implications of falling in love with artificial intelligence as it is the better-late-than-never coming-of-age story of a 39-year-old man.”

Theodore works for, composing letters for those who want a personal touch to their correspondence without being bothered to actually do the writing. The irony is that Theodore is able to express his clients’ feelings effectively, but has trouble expressing his own. He is going through a divorce which in part resulted from his emotional constipation. As he states at one point, “I think I hid myself from her, left her alone in the relationship.”

Theodore purchases OS1, the operating system, after seeing an advertisement that, oddly, wasn’t so much about the capabilities of the system as about self-invention. “Who are you?” the announcer asks. “What can you be?” Theodore decides to find out. He chooses a female voice for the system, then is asked to describe his relationship with his mother. He responds (I’m paraphrasing here), “The frustrating thing about mom is if I told her something about my life, her answer was about her, not me.” So he petulantly withholds himself from his wife and other women because his mom ignored his efforts to make himself known. He actually does pretty well being himself with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), but that’s probably because she isn’t a prospective mate. He can only get so close to women he’s interested in before shutting down emotionally.

Samantha, the name that OS1 chooses for herself, at first serves primarily as his administrative assistant, telling him when emails arrive and the like. Pretty soon, though, their conversation takes a more personal turn. Samantha wants to learn about the world and enlists Theodore to teach her things. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, he opens up to her. Shortly after telling her about having been distant from his wife, he tells Samantha, “I can say anything to you.” Was Samantha programmed to draw him out, to provide what psychoanalyst Franz Alexander called a “corrective emotional experience” in order to undo the deleterious effects of early parenting? Or does his openness to Samantha simply a function of her being software? We present a persona to other people, seeking to manage the impressions they form, but there’s no need to put on the mask when interacting with a computer program. In the article referenced above, Reich describes a “Twitter bot” designed to take one’s tweets and respond so as to reflect the characteristics of the tweeter. People flocked to the site, preferring to interact with the bot rather than each other. There’s something appealing about receiving personal responses from someone or something not human and presumably not likely to judge us negatively.

Theodore eventually reverts to form, withholding negative feelings from Samantha in a rather passive-aggressive way. Without revealing too much of the plot, I think it’s fair to say that his issue isn’t with Samantha or even with his mother complex, but with himself, particularly his doubts about whether he can ever have a genuine relationship. In the end, the relationship with Samantha is more real than any he has with flesh-and-blood women. He grows in his capacity to be in relationship, resulting in his corresponding growth as a person. Isn’t that the way it is with all of us: when we cultivate relationships, we are also cultivating ourselves.