10 Counterculture Love Stories on Film


While Moonrise Kingdom is currently making Wes Anderson fans swoon, one film that inspired the director’s filmography is getting a Blu-ray release today from distinguished distributor Criterion. Harold and Maude was digitally restored and lovingly packaged by the company, and we can’t get enough of it. The darkly comedic, unconventional love story centers on a morbid, wealthy 19-year-old man (Bud Cort) and the bohemian 79-year-old widow he falls for (Ruth Gordon). It’s a heartbreaking, but inspiring tale, and a landmark of 1970’s cult cinema.

The youthful rebellion of the counterculture movement, and the anxiety of the Vietnam War are reflected through Harold and Maude’s relationship. The 1971 film clearly expresses an anti-war sentiment through its characters that buck authority in different ways and carve their own path despite the odds (a loving push from Gordon’s feisty octogenarian is crucial here). We thought of other cinematic couples from various points in film history that also found love in a countercultural landscape. Dig into our picks, then leave your own in the comments below.

Bonnie and Clyde

Released during America’s emerging counterculture, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde resonated with younger audiences who were still reeling from Kennedy’s assassination and coping with news about Vietnam. The film reflects the buzz of social change. The iconic, cold-blooded killers played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway helped usher in the New Hollywood era, breaking all the taboos of cinema, sticking to their guns (literally) while on the lam after a slew of holdups during the Great Depression. Women wanted to look like Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker, men wanted to be as cool as Beatty’s Clyde, and the no-holds-barred love the on-screen couple shared exhilarated viewers.

Dog Day Afternoon

At the center of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — based on a real-life New York robbery — is Sonny (Al Pacino), a troubled Vietnam vet who sees himself as a kind of anti-establishment hero while shouting “Attica!” in the midst of robbing a bank and taking hostages to cheers from onlookers. He’s married with children, but his real “wife” is Leon (Chris Sarandon), and the bank robbery was supposed to help pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgery. We learn they’ve been through hell together, namely due to Sonny’s trouble adjusting to civilian life after the war. Their relationship is complex, heartbreaking, and forces us to sympathize with Sonny despite his actions.

Sid and Nancy

Ah, punk rock love. The 1986 biopic portraying Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his drug-fueled, volatile relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) epitomizes the tumultuous moments leading up to their deaths, immortalizing them. A year before the couple’s downfall, the Sex Pistols ventured on a raucous American tour in 1978 — a jarring punk pandemonium set against the backdrop of America’s conservative move to the Reagan Revolution. The train finally barreled out of control as Alex Cox’s movie details.

Natural Born Killers

Counterculture director Oliver Stone made a savage, modern-day version of Bonnie and Clyde with his opus on capitalist America and its obsession with the media. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are a product of society, violent killers traversing the dusty landscape looking for trouble. Several key scenes toy with their love story as a twisted parody of a couples or family sitcom. The perverse spoof on working class ideals emphasizes their complete societal abandonment.

The Doom Generation

Gregg Araki’s teen angst tale of the 1990s — part of his Apocalypse Trilogy and the New Queer Cinema movement — isn’t billed as a traditional love story, but the relationship between a young couple (Rose McGowan, James Duvall) and the semi-psychotic drifter (Johnathon Schaech) who enters their lives is the vehicle for a transgressive take on love. The film unapologetically explores our culture’s self-obsession (and that of its characters), our love of violence, and of course, untraditional ideas about love and sex.

The Graduate

Fresh out of college, thoroughly confused, and rejecting a career in “plastics,” Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is pursued by a disillusioned and much older housewife Mrs. Robinson. The two begin an affair at her manipulation. Things eventually turns sour when the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine starts dating the anxious Benjamin — an orchestrated relationship that gets sideswiped by Ben’s admission that he slept with Elaine’s mom. They seem to fall in love, despite the Robinsons’ repeated attempts to keep them apart, but Benjamin refuses to accept rejection. We’re not sure if the directionless Benjamin can be seen as a heroic 1960’s counterculture Romeo, but his desire for more and heart bursting with hope are in stark contrast to those around him.

Midnight Cowboy

John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy took full advantage of the 1960’s shifting social and political landscape. The film’s self-reflexive themes and style mirrored the soul-searching American counterculture. In turn, the city of New York becomes one half of a very complicated — and often abusive — couple, wedded to naïve male prostitute Joe. The city symbolizes a new frontier for the young Texan (in full cowboy regalia) — a place of experience where Joe searches for a connection (which he partially finds in his ambiguous relationship with Dustin Hoffman’s Rizzo, who you could easily argue is the other “love affair” in the film) and tries to find his way.


The love story between a devious trapeze artist named Cleopatra and her sideshow “midget” husband Hans doesn’t have a happy ending in Tod Browning’s Freaks. The unnerving circus tale subverts all expectations, creating a dramatic storyline that forces audiences to sympathize with the movie’s “freaks,” pegging the “normal” people as the real monsters. The pre-code horror film didn’t fare well upon its release in 1932, but eventually became a cult favorite for its counterculture parable.


French New Wave counterculture film Breathless — the first movie from auteur Jean-Luc Godard — was a revolutionary cinematic feat, leading the movement that rejected conventional ideas about narrative and style. Godard’s tale about a French, film-obsessed criminal and his American girlfriend also reflects this innovation with exuberant rebellion. We see it in their run from the law and the nonlinear snapshots of their daily lives without dramatic pretense. This was the cinema of Godard’s generation that pulsed with new energy and ignored ideals.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

Peter Sellers plays a self-described square whose world collides with pot brownies, flower power, and a free-spirited hippie named Nancy. It’s a fun story about self-discovery, and the struggle of the counterculture against conventional society is nicely illustrated by the awesomely talented — but very “straight” looking — Sellers in hippie duds.