Oh Zoe! You poor messed up confused scared sad little girl. The whole story of the film is your story.
Zoe starts out seeming so put together that she is unbelievable. She has a super cool career and works out of a super cool coffee shop workspace, she wears top fashion clothes, she goes out at night to hip clubs with hot guys. She is that kind of perfect ideal woman you might see in a TV commercial, the “modern woman” that women want to be and men want to date. The whole way she talks, casually telling charming stories to Raj, casually telling off Veer, it’s like she floats above regular life, is too far beyond regular concerns to feel them.
This is why people (including me sometimes) hate the youth! The folks who are right at their peak of everything, the people who are the photos in every magazine, the stars of every TV show, the ones the whole world is watching. That’s Zoe, the whole world is focused on her and she rises up on the adulation. Heck, even her mother just sits back and applauds her perfection. Empty spoiled ungrateful young woman.
The spoiled ungrateful young woman does exist in the world, although far less than people think. People born into privilege, who have that privilege doubled when they are lucky enough to hit a time as the center of society, they can become so in love with their own image, the image reflected back to them by every scrape of media, that they lose the ability to see the world beyond themselves. Zoe, in this movie, is something slightly different. She feels herself to be so broken and wrong on the inside that she has chosen to pretend to be someone else on the outside. She models herself on those young people you see, the stereotype of the young urban woman, she is playing the role presented to her by the world as camouflage since she is afraid to be her true self.
What I find fascinating with Zoe is that she uses the stunning exciting young person as a role, but she does not try to benefit from it. She goes out on dates with men and enjoys herself and doesn’t “lead them on”, or demand compliments, or anything really. She has that one bad boyfriend that tries to blackmail her into sex in return for buying drinks and part of her shock is that she never ASKED him to do any of that. She wanted a good time out at night and thought that’s all he wanted to, she did not expect anything from him. She isn’t going to be charming and sweet in a job interview, she is going to be blunt and honest and say that who she is for herself, not pretty herself up for sale. Even with Raj, she starts out charming and playing the part in return for a nice interaction. Once he begins to really open up to her, she stops the posturing and charming smiles, she gives him real self in return for real self. She knows the empty value of who she pretends to be most of the time.
The first hour of the film is this fake cool girl persona being chased by Veer, an extremely real person. There are already little indications that all is not perfect, it isn’t “on brand” for a very hip young urban woman to be so depressed she can’t sleep at night and go out to sit on the ground drinking tea with a strange young man. It’s not on brand for her to like riding on the back of his bike to go to her business meetings. Veer is not a rebel, or rich, or even intellectual and serious. He is just odd, and does not fit at all with who Zoe is pretending to be. But he fits with the real self she is consciously trying to hide.
The movie we think we are watching is this very cool girl being won over by the devoted love of the boy who is not worthy, like she is the trophy. And then there is a twist, at the interval, he “gets” her, and she leaves him all of a sudden. She’s not a trophy at all, she is a person who cannot be taken and won once and for all like that.
Zoe’s story both is and is not about Veer. It is, because he is what starts off her journey towards a better sense of herself, and because he is her happy ending. But it is not, because the journey is something she must do alone, and the happy ending is something she must find for herself. Most of all, because the true problems in her life have nothing to do with Veer.
That usual “cool girl” story would have the love she finds being what brings the first sorrow in her life and the first problems in her heart. This film says “no, for a woman to be that kind of ideal cool girl in the first place, there is already something wrong, something she is running from in her life”. Filmikudhi in the comments described Zoe’s mother as emotionally abusive and I think that is fair. She is also a bad person. I want to break that into two parts so we can look at the two separate effects on Zoe.
First, as her mother, she is Zoe’s model for adulthood. Her mother trained her to value appearances, money, external success. Zoe is now in her early to mid twenties and beginning to be out in the world, and discovering her own definitions for happiness for herself that don’t quite fit with her mother’s. That is a universal story, every woman models herself on her female caregiver, every woman hits adulthood and struggles to define herself as different from her mother. That’s hard, defining yourself in contrast to how you were raised, what you believed being a “woman” is. And Zoe is struggling to accept that her mother is simply a bad model. Her mother fell in love and married young and tells Zoe that being married young is terrible and career is everything. Zoe believes it, believes in the rules her mother has laid out for her as any daughter would. Especially because they almost fit her, she does love her job and flourishes at it, she doesn’t want a traditional marriage. The film is about her discovering that she has to figure out what a job means for her, not prestige and freedom like her mother says, but something that is just hers and makes her feel satisfied with a job well done. And discovering that her mother’s view of marriage and relationships may not be the right view for her, sometimes she has to ignore her mother’s advice. Such a hard lesson! You spend your life with your parent being wise and powerful and knowing, and then you have to grow up and find when sometimes they aren’t wise and powerful and knowing, sometimes you really do know more than them.
Second, her mother is simply abusive. It would be possible for her mother to give her perfect advice, and plan out the exact life Zoe wants, and be supportive of whatever she wanted, and still be abusive. The two things are unrelated. Zoe has to fight her way to figure out who she is in contrast to her mother, while also struggling with recovery from the wounds of her mother’s abuse. The way her mother talks to her, turning from loving to vicious, is not just “emotional” or “mothers and daughters”, it is actual abuse. Zoe grew up afraid, taught that she must always keep her mother happy as best she could in order to avoid an attack. Never feeling secure, never feeling safe in her own home, being pitifully grateful for the little bits of love she received.
This isn’t abuse as you usually see it in movies, where the parent is constantly angry and scary, it is the way it is in reality. Which is why folks have such a hard time accepting it in reality, and perhaps also in this film. Her mother is sweet and generous and supportive. And then she gets a little angry, gives hard truths and advice. All still normal. Until suddenly she lets loose, yelling, telling Zoe she is wrong and worthless and her life is doomed. Next scene, sweeter than ever, she didn’t mean it, everything is great. If Zoe said to an outsider “I am afraid of my mother”, they would say “nonsense, she is so sweet, I wish she was my mother”. That’s the cycle of abuse, the slow build to an explosion, then the honeymoon period of sweetness, and then building up again.
Zoe has to figure out who she is and what she really wants outside of what her mother has planned for her, has to figure that out while dealing with her PTSD symptoms from her mother’s abuse, and while knowing that to everyone watching her she seems to have the perfect life. So perfect, she can’t even complain to them about it. What would she say? “I have my dream job, I am young and beautiful and rich, but I also have dissociative episodes, insomnia, and can’t seem to ever feel happiness or believe I deserve love”.
Imtiaz did that on purpose. He took the perfect person and made the audience see that even this perfect person deserves sympathy, not envy. We never know what is beneath the surface, we never know what another person is going through.