Hide before Lacuna’s eraser technicians arrive and meet me in Montauk.

Happy 20th anniversary to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet sci-fi drama, released March 19, 2004, is the best relationship movie ever made and one of the decade’s top films. In an industry where it isn’t easy to find unique works of art, there had never been anything like this classic— and there hasn’t been anything like it since. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning Best Original Screenplay, and was named one of the 10 movies of the year by the American Film Institute.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind endures because of its relatable hypothetical. Everyone has been in a romantic relationship that didn’t work out how you hoped. If you could, would you erase it from your mind to spare you the lingering pain and regret? Or are you better off keeping those memories even though they cause you sadness and discomfort?

After experiencing the rawness of a recent breakup, we would probably select Option A. But given additional time, we might change our minds. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, director Michel Gondry, and artist Pierre Bismuth put these ideas to the test in the most imaginative way possible. The love story of Joel and Clementine has resonated so strongly with audiences over decades that it remains a part of modern pop culture. Ariana Grande’s latest album, Eternal Sunshine, is inspired by the film, and the music video for “we can’t be friends” pays homage to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Like many creative endeavors, the concept started with a real-life conversation. Bismuth heard a friend complain about her boyfriend. According to Focus Features, she jokingly suggested she would erase him from her mind if the technology existed. Bismuth passed on the idea to Gondry, who told Kaufman. From that moment, a masterpiece was born.

There’s a lot to love about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and at the heart of it all is a couple you want to cheer for. Joel and Clementine seem like people we know. For one hour and 48 minutes, we watch their love story unfold in reverse, from breakup to their meet cute. Much of it rings familiar because we recognize the enthusiasm that blossoms with new love and the bitterness that emerges when a relationship dies.

Winslet earned a Best Actress Oscars nomination for playing the impulsive extrovert Clementine. It’s well-deserved. However, we need to talk about Carrey. Before Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the funnyman had only a handful of dramatic roles— the most notable being The Truman Show (1998) and Man on the Moon (1999). There’s often a stigma attached to comedians. For whatever reason, they’re often not viewed as serious actors. Carrey’s performance as introvert Joel was vastly underrated and deserving of a Best Actor nomination (He would have been a much more inspired choice than Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby.)

If you don’t buy Carrey as a grieving and awkward protagonist, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t work. Full stop. He has to do the most to get the audience to believe in and root for Joel. In the hands of another actor, maybe even one more accomplished, Joel could have easily rubbed viewers the wrong way. If the portrayal of Joel is a note off, he’s desperate and creepy. Instead, he’s lovesick and lovable. Gondry even suggested that Carrey draw inspiration from his split with Renée Zellweger to make the portrayal of Joel more believable.

Carrey and Winslet aren’t the only ones who shine. Look at the all-star cast, highlighted by Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson. They all fit neatly into their roles. Dunst’s performance has probably aged the best. She plays a pivotal part in the story that we don’t fully grasp until the end. It’s a dramatic turn; initially, it seems like Dunst’s Mary is merely there to provide light-hearted moments by frolicking with Ruffalo’s Stan. It’s not until she kisses Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson) that we realize the gravity of her situation.

What also holds up are the special effects. Gondry created a world where we see Joel’s memories erased. People disappear, faces and objects become blurred, and words from signs fade away. These things happen seamlessly, and no moment takes you out of the suspension of disbelief.

When the Lacuna techs are gone, we get the payoff of the memorable dramatic ending. When Joel and Clementine learn the truth — that each of them erased the other from their minds — their reactions are a believable blend of confusion and anger. And they’re left with a choice we can all relate to: Would you want to retry a relationship if you knew it failed the first time?

Joel and Clementine seemingly do, but we don’t know the long-term outcome. Did they stay together? Did they break up? In an ambiguously perfect ending, the couple is last seen on a snowy Montauk beach as the scene fades to white and Beck’s version of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” plays.

Relationships are a leap of faith. Much is unknown, and some things can never be erased.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is available to stream on Peacock. 

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.