Did you love Maureen Johnson’s break-out hit 13 Little Blue Envelopes? Are you on pins and needles waiting for its sequel, The Last Little Blue Envelope, to be released on April 26th?* Or are you just snowbound with a bad case of cabin fever and in need of some quality armchair traveling? If any of the above applies to you, I think you’ll enjoy this “watch alike” list I’ve compiled.
For those of you not in the know, 13 Little Blue Envelopes is about a shy everygirl named Ginny Blackwell, who is led on a madcap trip around Europe by 13 letters from her late, quixotic Aunt Peg. Each letter has an assignment for Ginny and she can only open the next when she completes the previous letter’s task. Needless to say, it’s a wonderful book to escape into, especially if you’re like me and live in a place where the sky has been the color of slush for three solid months. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of The Last Little Blue Envelope from Harper Teen at this year’s American Library Association’s Midwinter meeting. As I read I couldn’t help but compile a list of “watch alike” movies that deal with people figuring out who they are as they travel and see new things, much like Ginny does.
One note before we begin, all of these films were marketed to adults originally, whereas 13 Little Blue Envelopes was written for a young adult audience. None of these movies are “scandalous” by any means but they do contain some mature content (mostly language and sensuality). Any older teen should be fine. But, if you are concerned about content, I’ve provided ratings information for you.
Feel free to crib this list and use it in your library. I only ask that you credit me.
Before Sunrise (1995), United States, Rated R
[Update: A colleague pointed me to Roger Ebert’s review, where he states: “The R rating for this film, based on a few four-letter words, is entirely unjustified. It is an ideal film for teenagers.”]
Countries Featured: Austria (Vienna)
Tagline: Can the greatest romance of your life last only one night?
Plot Description: “Yesterday strangers, today inseparable soulmates. But separate they must in just a few hours. Jesse and Celine are making every moment count, pouring as much living as they can into the time Before Sunrise.” — DVD backmatter
My Review: This movie perfectly captures the loose, who knows what will happen, nature of a backpack trip through Europe. Americans travel to Europe in the hope of having similar adventures. Don’t judge it by its angsty 90s cover. (Seriously, my version is ridiculous. Sometimes people scan my DVD shelf, see it, look at it, look at me, and frown.) Before Sunrise speaks to the confusion of modern young adulthood. 1995 or 2011, The Big Questions are still difficult. I dare any twentysomething to watch this and not exclaim, “I thought I was the only one!” at least once. Linklater does a fabulous job of conveying the setting. Just watching the opening credits makes me feel like I’m on a cross European train trip.
Bonus: As I see it, it’s not only a trip to Vienna, it’s a trip back in time. Oh hello 90s, you loveable, self-indulgent decade. After all, it stars a greasy Ethan Hawke, case closed. Last time I watched Sunrise I decided to bring back the strappy tee-shirt dress. Is that bad?
Before Sunset (2004), United States, Rated R
Countries Featured: France (Paris)
Tagline: What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?
Plot Summary: Yes, unlike the rest of us schmoes, Celine and Jesse get a second chance to see if they are MFEO. This time they meet accidentally nine years later in Paris, when Jesse is promoting his latest book.
My Review: If there’s anything more poignant than young love, it’s looking back at it from a distance. As Celine, somewhat awkwardly phrases it: “Memory is a wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past.” Since the film was actually made nine years later it gets quite meta at times, when references are made to the first film – by way of Jesse’s book – and how the actors have aged. It’s a bit trippy to watch. In relation to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I like to think this is what might happen if Keith and Ginny met years later. Before Sunset is also about returning to Europe to finish what you’d started, which sounds familiar for some reason…
Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners) (2000), Denmark, Rated R “for language and some sexuality”
Countries Featured: Denmark, Italy
Tagline: Attendance Optional. Passion Required.
Plot Summary: “An unforgettable romantic comedy that’s earned overwhelming acclaim, Italian for Beginners is a warm and playful story about seven perfect strangers and the shared journey of discovery that changes each of their lives! In a small, rainy suburb, a mismatched collection of opposites have signed up for an Italian class in hopes of spicing up their lives! Then, as they realize the class offers them more than just language lessons, they join together on a quest to Italy with the renewed desire to pursue the romances of their lives! Once there, these world-weary students who thought there was nothing left to learn from life will get an education that will change everything they know about love!” — DVD backmatter
My Review: A movie that proves you don’t have to have a big budget to make an impact. Much like 13 Little Blue Envelopes, this film is as much about the characters’ journeys as it is the European destination. If you enjoy this film, try reading The School of Essential Ingredients.
Pane e tulipani (Bread & Tulips) (2000), Italy, PG-13 “for brief language, some sensuality and drug references”
Countries Featured: Italy
Tagline: Imagine your life. Now go live it.
Plot Summary: “When a harried housewife is accidentally left behind while on vacation with her family, she decides to take a holiday of her own in Venice. She becomes charmed by the city and her newfound freedom. She decides to extend her stay, finding a job in a flower shop, renting a room from a wistful waiter, and rediscovers her love for playing the accordion. But her solo journey does not sit well with her tyrannical husband, who hires an amateur detective to bring her back home.” — DVD backmatter
My Review: One of my favorite films of all time. Rosalba is such a relatable, lovely character. Like Ginny she doesn’t give herself much credit at first but, as her journey goes on, she discovers new talents and passions. The people Rosalba meets are quirky (like Aunt Peg’s friends) but never forced.
Availability: Unfortunately, the DVD appears to be out of print. If you can’t find it at your public library, it’s available, streaming, through Amazon, Netflix, or iTunes.
One Week (2008), Canada, Rated 14A (Ontario) – drug use, mild sexuality
Countries Featured: Canada
Tagline: What would you do?
Plot Summary: “When confronted with his mortality, twenty something Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson) impulsively buys a vintage motorcycle and sets off on a road trip that starts in Toronto and ends up on Vancouver Island in the town of Tofino. Humorous, profound and extremely moving, One Week uses the great Canadian landscape as the backdrop to the story of a man and his life’s journey. In the search for himself, he finds out what makes this country, and his life, so beautiful.” — DVD backmatter
My Review: Okay, so Ginny never makes it to Canada. But the spirit of this film is very similar to Johnson’s books. It’s all about embracing life and being true to yourself, things to which Aunt Peg would have raised her glass. Even though it’s about a man who receives a terminal diagnosis it’s never depressing, I promise. I was impressed by how the love story was handled. And, as if they knew what would make me happy, Campbell Scott is the narrator. Pie! Thanks to JK for the recommendation.
Availability: Yikes, the DVD price is a little steep in the States because of import fees. (Oh, Canada. So close and yet so far.) I hope your public library carries it. If they don’t, it’s always worth a try to ask them to purchase it or ILL it for you.
Letters to Juliet (2010), United States, Rated PG for “brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking”
Countries Featured: United States (New York), Italy
Tagline: What if you had a second chance to find true love?
Plot Summary: “In Verona, Italy the beautiful city where Romeo first met Juliet there is a place where the heartbroken leave notes asking Juliet for her help. It’s there that aspiring writer Sophie finds a 50-year-old letter that will change her life forever. As she sets off on a romantic journey of the heart with the letter’s author, Claire, now a grandmother, and her handsome grandson, all three will discover that sometimes the greatest love story ever told is your own.” — DVD backmatter
My Review: Undoubtedly the fluffiest entry on this list. I can’t even defend it. But I love it. Watch it for the gorgeous scenery if nothing else. Also, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) is right: “Life is the messy bits.” Ahem, and let’s just say an odious British man is going to be significant later.
So just work your way through this list of films and, before you know it, The Last Little Blue Envelope will be in your hands!
What do you think of my picks? Did I miss anything? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
*It’s very much worth the wait, I promise. It was even better than the first book.