14 Classic Manic Pixie Dream Girls

It started with Nathan Rabin. After the A.V. Club film critic saw Kirsten Dunst’s performance in Elizabethtown, he coined her the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl™ — a.k.a. “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Harsh, but true — despite Dunst’s character being far from the first woman who’s been written to advance the emotional evolution of a young, stunted man. Movies have been ripe with the MPDG trope for decades, using them as the vehicle for a male lead’s story, while their own gets put on the back burner, or worse: guillotined. Their eccentricities are erased once their new boyfriend anchors them. (Boring.)

But that being said, movies like Mistress America are helping to create a new legacy. In it, two female leads navigate the emotional and mental struggles of one’s twenties. Although Greta Gerwig’s MPDG-esque character is hardly a trope. Smart, interesting, multi-dimensional, and realistic, she’s proof that characters outside the box can be more than some dude’s life catalyst.

In the meantime, here are 14 of the most famous MPDG, who deserve their own films.
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Photo: Everett Collection/REX USA.
Character: Fran Kubelik

Movie: The Apartment (1960)

Admittedly, The Apartment is hardly as bad as Elizabethtown or Garden State. In 1960, it was downright rebellious for a woman like Fran (Shirley MacLaine) to be an elevator operator, a mistress, and a woman who realizes she can do better. However, we can see that filmmakers have kept recycling this 50-year-old character trope: after realizing her lover will never leave his wife, she overdoses in the apartment of her friend, the downtrodden, emasculated Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who falls in love with Fran’s carefree life approach, and eventually wins her affections. In 1960, this was groundbreaking. But in 2015? Bud would have to try harder.
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Photo: Everett Collection/REX USA.
Character: Holly Golightly

Movie: Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)

Alas, one of the most famous Manic Pixie Dream Girls in pop culture history. Described by author Truman Capote (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on), Holly is a society girl who earns her keep via dates with rich men and is less a prostitute than an “American Geisha.” And while that description in itself could fill a post, what will fill this one is the over-romanticized relationship between free-spirit Holly (played by Audrey Hepburn) and wannabe-free spirit Paul (George Peppard). While Paul aspires to write, Holly aspires to marry a rich man for his money to support herself and her brother. It doesn’t go well. Soon after, Paul decides that he loves Holly and she "belongs to him." After briefly abandoning him, she recedes and the two end up together.
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Photo: SNAP/REX USA.
Character: Judy Maxwell

Movie: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

But not all Manic Pixie Dream Girls need be serious. In 1972’s comedy, What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand plays a woman whose life is defined by the worst kind of luck: car crashes, hotel room spontaneous combustions, etc. After being expelled from school, she offers life perspective to her supporting characters — including Howard (Ryan O’Neal), who ends his engagement with his uptight fiancée (Madeline Kahn). The good news: MPDG become far more interesting when they’re given lines and action that allow for laughter. The bad news: not more MPDG are written like Judy.
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Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX USA.
Character: Annie Hall

Movie: Annie Hall (1977)

The point of Annie Hall is for lead man Alvy “Max” Singer (Woody Allen) to try and piece together why his relationship with the film’s title character (Diane Keaton) failed. (Kind of like (500) Days of Summer, but made a little more succinctly.) Here’s why: Alvy is overly anxious, neurotic, jealous, and he talks about his ex-wife the first time he and Annie hang out. Annie, on the other hand, is relaxed, relatively comfortable with herself, in need of relationship flexibility, and nowhere near as dark as her boyfriend. (He buys books on death.) Their relationship was always doomed (so get over it, Alvy).
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Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Character: Belle

Movie: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Tale as old as time: this book-loving, street-singing, apron-wearing woman (with a ponytail, nonetheless) effortlessly captured the attention of the misogynistic freak show, Gaston. She also won the heart of The Beast (his name is John, I think?), who overcomes his emotional and mental trauma by reading books and holding birds and dancing. Nevermind that this poor soul is a literal monster because he didn’t let a strange woman into his house as a teenager — or that he’s spent his pubescent years covered in fur. Thanks to Belle and her super-chill hairstyle, he learns to love again. (Even though she literally is forced to abandon everybody she loves in the process.)
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Photo: Moviestore Collection/rexREX USA.
Character: Lelaina Pierce

Movie: Reality Bites (1994)

Okay, fine — we’re kind of stretching it here. Especially because Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) is as much a MPDG for corporate TV guy Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), as Life Failure Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy for Lelaina herself. Ultimately, Reality Bites is the story of what happens when two Manic Pixie Dream People choose each other over reason. In the process people lose jobs, friends, and a U2 song plays during the most painful emotional moments. Not only that, but we don’t even know how these characters turned out. The last scene of the film sees them in the final stages of moving day, with no jobs between either of them, hanging out on a couch. We’ll take the part-time job at The Gap with Janeane Garofalo, thanks.
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Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX USA.
Character: Sara Deever

Movie: Sweet November (2001)

In this remake of the 1968 weep-fest by the same name, Nelson Moss (Keanu Reeves) meets Sara Deever (Charlize Theron), who convinces him to spend a month together so she can change his life for the better. Obviously, he obliges — soon after learning from a friend that he is Sara’s “November.” What this means is that for an entire month, Sara’s unconventional approach to life inspires and awakens Nelson, prompting him to live life differently (and of course, fall in love with her). Unfortunately for Nelson, Sara is dying. And after they share one last, heartbreaking night together, she leads Nelson to a park and leaves him there. (For real.)
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Photo: Snap Stills/REX USA.
Character: Sam

Movie: Garden State (2004)

Behold: the dramedy that helped spawn a million MPDG think pieces. After his mother dies, Andrew (Zach Braff) ends up back in New Jersey, where he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) in a doctor’s office. Sam loves The Shins and listens to all of Andrew’s problems without him really doing the same for her. That’s when he begins a journey to find himself through Sam’s patience and quirks, all before eventually leaving her at the airport because while she changes his life, he still needs to work on some stuff. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you think of it long term), he doesn’t board the flight because he doesn’t want to waste any more time, and the two are reunited. Whether The Shins played at their wedding is never confirmed.
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Photo: Universal/Everett/REX USA.
Character: Polly Prince

Movie: Along Came Polly (2004)

Uptight and IBS-stricken (been there, man) Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) begins to re-evaluate his whole life after the demise of his marriage. Fortunately for him, he crosses paths with a former high school classmate, Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), who “liberates” Reuben through new foods, new activities, and by stabbing the throw pillows on his bed. Obviously, this joy can’t last (or there wouldn’t be a movie), and Reuben finds himself torn between Polly and his wife, whose equally straight-laced personality is comforting, compared to the — say it with me — freewheeling Ms. Prince. Finally, he makes a decision, but not before eating food on the ground in front of her to prove how free-spirited he is too. (Note: many throw pillows were harmed in the making of this movie.)
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Photo: Snap Stills/REX USA.
Character: Claire

Movie: Elizabethtown (2005)

And then there was Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Fun, blonde, and freewheeling like Cameron Crowe’s Penny Lane (see: Almost Famous), this flight attendant has all the time in the world to help Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) make sense of his dad’s death and his own failures. She talks to him for hours on the phone, the two hang out at a relative stranger’s wedding, they sleep together (he freaks out when she tells him she loves him), and then she plans a road trip for Drew and his father’s ashes — which lead back to her. Go for it, guys.
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Photo: c.Warner Br/Everett/REX USA.
Character: Allison

Movie: Yes Man (2008)

Thanks to New Girl, we all know now that Zooey Deschanel is far more than just a free spirited actor with a penchant for wicked-good bangs. But in 2008, we had yet to clue into her skills. That’s why when she played Allison — the girl in a band who rides a scooter and inspires Jim Carrey’s Carl to be more spontaneous — it seemed pretty standard. Especially since through her zest for saying yes to things, she inspires Carl to live a more exciting life. They fall in love, and she ends up teaching a photography class, because it wouldn’t be a movie about human awakening without a female lead realizing she’s got to anchor herself for a conventional guy.
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Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Character: Summer Finn

Movie: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds new meaning in life when he meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), a coworker he begins projecting unrealistic relationship/life expectations onto. So, having abandoned his dream of being an architect, he instead puts his energy into his new life with Summer — despite her making it very clear that she’s never intended on being exclusive with him, or working to make their relationship last forever. Obviously, Tom doesn’t listen. And after Summer unceremoniously ends it over breakfast pancakes, Tom plummets into despair — only to realize that he loved the idea of Summer, and not Summer herself. (Just in time to meet Autumn, another woman he undoubtedly projects his unrealistic expectations onto — poor woman.)
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Photo: Snap Stills/REX USA.
Character: Penny Lane

Movie: Almost Famous (2009)

Based very loosely on real-life groupies Pamela Des Barres and Bebe Buell, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) embodies the free-spirited personality of (some) young female music fans of rock 'n' roll. Set in the early 1970s, Almost Famous introduces us to Penny via William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit and based loosely on Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the film), a teen boy who falls in love with Penny’s mysteriousness, whimsy, and self-mythologizing. Eventually, he realizes she is a person (after she overdoses and tells him her life story), but not before declaring his own love for her to the band they were with — and the guy in the band she overdosed for. Fortunately, she ends up escaping the scene and travelling to Morocco, but not before revealing her real name is/was Lady Goodman.
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Photo: Everett/REX USA.
Character: Ramona Flowers

Movie: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

For the record, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in and of herself (she’s mysterious, sure, but she’s tough and not afraid to tell Scott (Michael Cera) when he’s acting a fool) than she is the product of Scott’s gaze. Based on the comic books by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim is about the battle between the franchise’s namesake and Ramona’s ex-boyfriends (the villains), who must be defeated so Ramona can move on. So: it’s kind of like the emotional narrative of any 20-something dude. Even though Ramona would’ve totally been fine without him (in retrospect).
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