To some, it might come as a surprise that wide-eyed girl next door Zooey Deschanel has been in the showbiz game since before the turn of the century. Before some of the The Young Folks’ readers were born, even. From quirky-cute girls to women who are all grown up and unafraid, Deschanel has the whole “acting thing” on lock, honing her skills for nearly two decades.
The Los Angeles native celebrated her 36th birthday yesterday. (Hard to believe, right?) In honor of Zooey’s special day, I take a look back on the actress’s film history to showcase five of her very best roles.
Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer (2009)
As Summer Finn in Marc Webber’s offbeat sleeper success, Deschanel glows. Summer is intelligent and sharp-witted, clearly beautiful and knows exactly who she is and the ideals by which she stands. And most importantly, she knows who she isn’t: the manic pixie dream girl Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) views her as. Though her character in (500) Days is distorted with a lens of exasperate admiration through the eyes of Tom, Deschanel brings to the table a kind of womanhood that is so deeply grounded in reality. While Summer Finn falls somewhat in line with the roles for which Deschanel is often type-cast — the eccentric, “I’m not like the other girls” girl — there’s a distinction to be made. The person she is and the person — or object, truthfully — that Tom Hansen views her as are two different people. Regardless if Tom raised her on a pedestal in the moments he believed that the light hit her in a magical way, fell in an immediate lust when she mentioned how much she loved The Smiths or demonized her when the relationship has run its course, Summer Finn was never anything more or less than herself and never said or implied she was. I could talk for hours about the magnitude of a character like Summer Finn and the importance of Deschanel’s performance, but I’ll refrain and leave you with a reminder. “Just ’cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t make her your soulmate.”
Jovie, Elf (2003)
If you were anything like me as a kid, you thought the blonde-haired, blue-eyed “elf” who sang a duet with Will Ferrell in Jon Favreau’s Christmas comedy classic was, and I quote, “the raddest.” Though Deschanel was calmer and arguably cooler in her role as Jovie, there remained a sparkle of a sunny disposition that is so intrinsic to the actress. That dazzle is subdued but still noticeable, lying right beneath the surface in many of her scenes with Buddy (Will Ferrell), with particular regard to the aforementioned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” number, the Rockefeller Center ice-skating montage and the moment she leads a choir of Santa-non-believers on Christmas Eve.
Anita Miller, Almost Famous (2000)
At the risk of sounding like I’m self-inserting, Zooey Deschanel’s role as Anita Miller, older sister to rock music enthusiast and aspiring journalist William Miller, is wickedly close to my real-life older sister. Deschanel’s Anita is a bit mysterious — but never uppity — with a head full of big dreams and the coolest songs, worldly-wise in that unique way only an older sibling can be. And it’s not just similarities between Anita and my sister that make me love Deschanel in this Cameron Crowe comedy, it’s the digression from her usual roles that leaves the character with a certain ‘zazz. Though it’s one of her earlier performances, Anita Miller still feels fresh and, in a way, unexpected if you only recognize Deschanel from her work elsewhere.
Ms. Edmunds, Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Zooey Deschanel, had she not pursued acting, seems like she’d make a fantastic grade school teacher. With her upbeat perspective, bright eyes and flashy smile, Deschanel as music teacher Ms. Edmunds in Gábor Csupó’s Bridge to Terabithia inspires and influences her students to think with a wide-open mind and love with a full heart. Without spoiling the film for those who have yet to see it, Ms. Edmunds’s good intentions don’t always have the best outcomes, causing her to bend after an enormous trauma. It’s wonderful to see Deschanel in a role that feels somewhat familiar, but is still flexible and dynamic. If you end up giving this a watch, have a box — or four — of tissues at hand; you will cry.
Natalie “Nat” Rochlin, Our Idiot Brother (2011)
Though the film is admittedly a tad unbalanced, it’s so endearing that it’s difficult to dislike. Natalie “Nat” Rochlin, sister to the titular character played by Paul Rudd, adds a layer of charm to the Jesse Peretz film. Nat is by far one of the biggest jumps away from Deschanel’s typical roles. She’s bisexual, bohemian, bold and individualistic, and Zooey plays her extremely well. Like we’ve seen Deschanel portray in New Girl as Jess Day, Nat in Our Idiot Brother is a woman with some growing up to do, which, given her history, means she’ll spiral out. While this dramedy role may feel grown-up for Deschanel, and it is compared to some of her other works, it never feels too mature; she settles into the character’s skin wonderfully. As Nat Rochlin, the actress proves she’s got serious chops, shifting and expanding into this role with chameleonic adaptability.