Usually movies are based on a pretty simple premise. Boy Meets Girl, for example. Or Enormous Ship Sinks, or We Really Can’t Tell Whether We’re Dreaming Or in Someone Else’s Dream. (O.K., that last one, Inception, was kind of complicated.) But, often, seemingly simple movies are really examining a complex sociological trend. Such a film is Blue Valentine.
The film, which comes out Dec. 31, is pretty simple: two young people fall in love and then they fall out of it. It’s told in flashbacks, so when we meet Cindy (Michelle Williams), she’s already strangely detached from her family, including her housepainter husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling), her daughter, Frankie, and her father. (More on Time.com: Somewhere: Sofia Coppola’s Hotel California)
Turns out that when Cindy and Dean first met, she was planning to be a doctor. But then she ended up having a bad date with someone else and got pregnant, and was rescued by the smitten and adorably quirky Dean.
Five years later, Dean and Cindy are still married. She’s an obstetric nurse, still getting blindsided by guys who hit on her. And she can no longer stomach the sight of her husband, who remains devoted but is very confused.
What we have playing out here in all its gory glory is educational homogamy. That’s the practice of young people marrying or mating with other young people who are their educational equals. In this case, the problem is that Dean and Cindy are heterogamous. (More on Time.com: Holiday Movie Preview 2010)
It’s clear that while Dean has his charms, he’s not ambitious and, having dropped out of high school, he’s not well-educated. He’s the type of guy who can play ukelele and sing falsetto, but likes to go to his day job drunk. “What does potential even mean?” he asks when his wife wonders why he doesn’t want to do more with his talents.
Cindy has her own issues. She’s a good student but a little lost. Having slept with 25 guys before she was 16, she asks her grandmother what it feels like to fall in love. “Oh dear,” says granny. “You’ve got to be careful that it’s worth it for you.” Having watched her parents marriage disintegrate, she’s wary. “How do you trust feelings when they can just disappear like that?” she asks. They turn out to be prophetic words.
That people tend to marry other people who are like them, educationally speaking, is in part simply a matter of time and place — you marry those you meet and if you go to college, you meet college graduates. But some of it is more complicated. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Fiction Books)
In a study published in August, Christine Schwartz, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested that couples who cohabited were less likely to get married or to stay together if they weren’t educationally similar. She argues it’s not just that we choose people who are similar to us educationally. It’s that we leave people who aren’t. “Marriages that cross educational boundaries are particularly likely to end,” she writes.
Williams had never heard of educational homogamy when I asked her about it, and she wasn’t sure that was the whole story. “Cindy escaped her father to marry her father,” she says. “She’s feeling alone intellectually and emotionally.”
When I suggest that that might be a product of educational disparity, she concedes the point, but can’t help defending the character she plays. “People say if you do find someone who treats you decently, that should be enough,” she says. “What’s wrong with saying that isn’t enough?” It’s a question many married women seem to be asking. (More on Time.com: ‘A’ for Effort: Doling Out the Cincy Awards)
Of course, demography is not destiny, so couples with different backgrounds can have really quite happy, long-lasting relationships. It’s just that their stories usually don’t make for very good movies.
Blue Valentine is a good movie — but not a good date movie. You have been warned.