by Katherine Clowater | February 23, 2021
You never forget your first rom-com love.
They capture your attention with their witty remarks and dazzling smiles. They win your affections with their romantic gestures and emotional confessions of love. They send your heart aflutter with every stolen glance and longing look. Some people might cite Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, perhaps Heath Ledger, or maybe even Noah Centineo.
When I posed that question to myself, about who my first rom-com love was, one person instantly came to mind. One man graced my television screen when I was a tween and solidified my love for the genre, the actor, and that movie forever. For me, that person is Mark Ruffalo as Matt Flamhaff from the coming-of-age romantic comedy, 13 Going on 30 (2004). This film opened my heart to becoming a hopeless romantic and made me adore Mark Ruffalo when I wasn’t old enough to see any of his thrillers and Marvel movies were still years away. I didn’t know a thing about falling in love but I knew that if I ever did, I wanted to fall for someone like Matt Flamhaff.
Being a kid often comes with the burden of feeling out of place, worried about judgement from peers, and doing or saying ridiculous things just to impress someone. (I know I definitely begged my parents for a cool pair of shoes just because they were the hottest thing on the school playground that week.) So watching 13 Going on 30 for the first time as one of those kids just wanting to fit in and be accepted for who I was, Matt was a beacon of hope amidst that sea of adolescent insecurity and doubt. And what makes him that shining light for me can be found in the ways he expresses his love and what he eventually comes to represent to the protagonist, Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner).
Young Jenna (Christa B. Allen) doesn’t want to be seen as a dorky kid like her best friend Matt (Sean Marquette) who is an aspiring photographer and a lover of non-popular music—things that are sneered at by the popular kids at school. Jenna wants nothing more than to be accepted into this group of cool kids on her way to becoming a trendy and successful woman. More precisely: “thirty, flirty, and thriving.” At her 13th birthday party, young Matt surprises Jenna with the cutest gift: a miniature dream house made of a cardboard box, delicately painted in purple and pink, and featuring small paper cut-outs of Jenna, Matt, Rick Springfield, and more of her favourite things thoughtfully placed in each little room. Matt knows his best friend. He pays attention to what she likes and truly cares about her by putting the time – three weeks! – into this beautiful gift. And to make things even cuter, he sprinkles magic wishing dust on the house that will grant her what is in her heart of hearts so all her dreams would come true.
A little accidental wishing later and Jenna finds herself in her adult body. She’s 30 years old, dating a hunky hockey player, and an editor at a major fashion magazine. Thirty, flirty, and thriving! But she’s still that same teenage girl on the inside with no memory of her life between that birthday party and waking up in her fancy New York City apartment. At the beginning of the film, Jenna is thrilled to be an adult. She can buy all the beautiful clothes she wants, order piña colada (“not virgin”), and there’s not a parent in sight to scold her for swearing! This is how Jenna traverses this film: wide-eyed, romantic, and idealistic, constantly looking for the best in everything and everyone. From her perspective, it’s hard not to see Matt that way too—especially as a kid a little younger than Jenna watching this film for the first time.
The first time adult Jenna – and tween me – look at Matt with pure adoration is during one of the film’s best scenes. The magazine Jenna works for is throwing a party to get some good publicity but guests are abandoning the dance floor for the exit door. In a last-ditch effort to save the night from disaster, Jenna – being the pop music savvy 80s teen that she is – breaks out her zombie choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. When Jenna is on the verge of total embarrassment and all hope seems lost, Matt emerges from the crowd and within seconds he’s on that floor in front of a packed room of strangers dancing by her side. He hasn’t seen Jenna in nearly two decades yet he still jumps in to help her with little hesitation and only mild panic. Matt helps save the party and Jenna’s job in an act so heroic it could rival the actions of a certain green comic book character Ruffalo plays years later.
Jenna’s journey throughout 13 Going on 30 is her realizing that she does not actually want all these superficial and hollow experiences and relationships anymore. Her real dreams are not to fit in and conform to please people she doesn’t know or care about. Instead, she wants to form real connections and achieve a life filled with what makes her happy and loved. To do so, she distances from her former high school bully and current so-called friend and co-worker, Lucy (Judy Greer). And after discovering this adult version of herself doesn’t spend Christmases with her parents anymore, Jenna rushes back to her childhood home to mend things with them. And while she makes these realizations, she also gravitates toward Matt.
Upon seeing Matt as an adult for the first time, Jenna remarks that he looks incredibly different externally – and he does – but as the film progresses she learns that he is still unabashedly himself on the inside. At Jenna’s birthday party back in the 80s, he flails his arms around to “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads surrounded by the popular kids without a care in the world. When he bumps into Jenna on the street as adults, Matt is sporting a Talking Heads shirt—his devotion to the band holding strong. In both his childhood bedroom and his apartment, his walls are adorned with Taxi Driver (1976) and Blue Velvet (1986) posters, displaying his constant and unwavering love for movies as he’s grown up. He also continues to pursue photography and even makes it into a profession. Nothing, not even the glares and eye-rolling of judgmental teenagers, could put a damper on his love for these things. He sticks to his passions and interests regardless of what others think. Matt personifies the very idea of being true to oneself. As Jenna falls in love with Matt, she’s beginning to fall in love with these same values in herself.
Before Jenna’s birthday party, young Matt pulls out a package of his and Jenna’s favourite candy, Razzles. Jenna hesitates, claiming the chewy treat is just for kids to which Matt replies, “Exactly,” as he hands one to her. Later, as they’ve become close again as adults, Jenna insists on tracking down Razzles at the nearest corner store much to the surprise and delight of Matt. Sharing candy may not be as grand or obvious a gesture as shouting up to someone’s balcony or orchestrating a surprise serenade on the school soccer field, but it is a declaration of love between them. For him to share it with her when they’re kids is to tell her he loves her and just wants her to be happy as her true, authentic self. For her to share it with him as an adult is not only self-acceptance for Jenna but an acceptance of Matt’s love, and a silent reciprocation of it too.
With the dream house in her hands once again as an adult, Jenna makes a wish, the magic dust swirls, and she’s back to being teenage Jenna. She’s truly herself now. This time, however, she makes the choices that are actually in her heart of hearts: not trying to impress the popular kids but instead embracing Matt (with a kiss and metaphorically). By embracing him, she chooses a life in which she has the love she desires (in Matt as well as her parents) and gets to wholly enjoy the things that make her happy, not tossing them aside to appease others. She gets the purple and pink dream house, the lovely Matt, and even the Razzles, happy and unconcerned with what anyone thinks.
It’s no wonder I became a hopeless romantic after seeing 13 Going on 30 as a kid. To find a best friend to share everything with, who will support you and encourage you to be your most authentic and real self, who, in turn, you can also be supportive of and make happier too? To find someone who would risk embarrassing themselves to save you from public humiliation? What a dream. That’s why I love Matty and why he shall forever have a place in my heart as a rom-com crush. It’s not just because he’s a cool photographer who likes movies and happens to also be Mark Ruffalo. Matt Flamhaff makes me believe I can find someone to share Razzles with too.