The cult of youth that arrived in the early 1950s with overhyped pop art such as The Catcher in the Rye and Rebel without a Cause has so successfully embedded itself in American life that even the most cutting attacks on its roots have failed to shift it.
This valorization of immaturity—what Norman Podhoretz called “the poisonous glorification of the adolescent in American popular culture”—holds the ideas and opinions of the young to be purer in spirit and therefore superior in logic and morality than the encrusted ethics of their corrupt elders. No branch of the arts has been so vividly seized by this superstition as the movies, a young person’s game to begin with. Movies about young people—especially those made by young people—are mined for sociological data on the thoughts, passions, and aspirations of the upcoming generation.
The 2008 recession and subsequent sluggish economy have pried open a gap between college and adulthood, enshrining an already extant second adolescence of dependency on parents and soul-searching for twentysomethings with liberal-arts degrees and limited employment opportunities. This interregnum has become the subject of a mini-wave of movies that coincided with or post-dated the election of Barack Obama. This new cinema of graduate ennui is embodied by Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, which received a limited release this summer, and was found as well in Shelton’s 2009 Humpday, this spring’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay and Mark Duplass, 2012), and others. These films are loosely connected by their shared themes of alienation, unemployment, and debt, and the style of moviemaking—almost deliberately amateurish, made on the very cheap—replicates the economic constraints under which the characters live. Your Sister’s Sister, in which a jilted lesbian (Rosemarie DeWitt) tricks her sister’s best friend (Mark Duplass, the co-director of Jeff, Who Lives at Home) into impregnating her with the aid of a surreptitiously pierced condom, is more fanciful than most, but the leads are caught in the same aimless drift that permeates all these movies.
Characters are at loose ends, stuck in bill-paying jobs unrelated to their aspirations or university education. Darius, the female protagonist of Safety Not Guaranteed, is a depressed unpaid intern at a Seattle weekly living with her father. Tom, an architecture graduate, writes greeting cards for a living in (500) Days of Summer from 2009. Aura’s film-studies degree lands her a job as a club hostess in Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham’s 2010 debut film), while Doug (Cris Lankenau), of Cold Weather from 2010, lugs ice around even though he trained as a forensic scientist.
There is a shared language to these movies, the stunted, slangy style of people who have nothing to say but insist on trying to say it. Characters speak the nonjudgmental patois of contemporary America, in which it’s all cool that you’re dealing with your shit and doing your thing. Anything else would be f—ed up. They account for themselves and their sybaritic relationships in the self-serving psychobabble of a generation raised on Dawson’s Creek and Friends. No one objects to anything and everyone is studiously inoffensive, issuing the vapid, air-filling word salads of a culture whose language has been stultified into mush by the twin tyrannies of political correctness and “progressive” teaching methods.
These graduate-ennui movies are like group therapy sessions for first-time voters coping with all the disappointments of the Age of Obama, an epoch that could only be a letdown after the breathless thrill-up-the-leg hype of hope and change. Four years on from the Great Feel-Good Hysteria of 2008, Obama’s young guard is learning that presidential coolness does not index well against job creation. The students who skipped entire semesters of gender-studies lectures to register voters are now out of college and on the unemployment line. These movies offer no explicit critique of Obama, but they hint at a psychic rupture, an emerging sense of betrayal and alienation. There is, for the first time since the 1970s, a suspicion among what should be the most idealistic age group that their lives will not get better. They have not known a confident America, save for those raw-defiant months after 9/11, and their notion of prosperity comes from the spend-now-earn-later head rush of the credit bubble. America is the world’s first inherited meritocracy, where opportunity is a birthright passed down through the generations, and yet those who make up the Obama generation do not share the optimism enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. They live in the present tense because they know nothing about the past and don’t believe in the future. Tiny Furniture’s Charlotte nonchalantly observes, “No one’s financially independent until they’re at least 25—maybe 30.”
And yet there is no righteous anger in these movies, no backlash against the false hopes and airy promises of a political salesman who, having failed to deliver hope and change, seeks to buy off young Americans with the chance to be freeloaders on their parents’ health insurance.
American youth’s being at loose ends is nothing new, and directors on the make can easily turn in 90 minutes of alienation and expect appreciative nods at Tribeca. But when the only theme is the Self and exploration of that self the sole plot, movies slide into a solipsistic sludge. Such characters offer us no insight, no impassioned apologia, no scathing critique of economics or culture or social arrangements. They just stand around, like cattle. The graduate-ennui film is a curious cultural artifact, the telltale heart under the floorboards of Obamaism, but until it can articulate an emotional maturity and a political intelligence, it will remain, like its protagonists, frozen in aimless adolescence.