In Film, Are Millennials Having a Moment?
Once upon a time—let’s say, oh, between the years 1981 and 1996—eighty million or so Americans were born. In their childhood and early adolescence, both the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers fell. In classrooms and nightclubs, their peers murdered each other at unprecedented, incomprehensible rates. They grew up on the Internet, a commercial space posing as a communication network, and they occupied “third places,” zones neither work nor home but pay-to-be-there hangouts. They claimed unfixed genders or no genders at all, saw AIDS become undetectable for the wealthy and connected, sodomy legalized and abortion criminalized, Britney Spears shave her head and Lady Gaga don a cowboy hat, land a Vegas show, win an Oscar. They heard the dial-up moan-and-grown ghost into the vibration of an iPhone.
The world called them Millennials, and they are having a moment. We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film, a series curated by Ashley Clark at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, tracks this generation’s imprint in and on cinema. Clark has gathered more than two dozen documentaries, web series, indie gems, classics, disasters, and even a masterpiece or two, in an attempt to make a canon for a generation more interested in dismantling them.
Gen-X lodestar David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), a lightly fictionalized biopic of Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is the origin story of a technology—and a habit—that defines us. Not quite the centerpiece, but a key film of the era, it depicts the digital displacement of reality itself in deeply conservative ways. The Social Network, full of young men on their hero’s journeys and presented at angles as if posing for busts, is fueled by Aaron Sorkin’s Boomer babble and scored by Gen-X fury Trent Reznor, allowed only to just tickle the tasteful ivories. “It’s thematically about the changes in technology, rather than an embodiment of them,” Clark told me, pointing to Millennial Eduardo Williams’s 2016 global-minded cybersex thriller, The Human Surge, as a better example of art both of and about its moment.
Vox Lux is another attempt, as Clark puts it, to examine “whether [Millennials] can process bad news at the rate we consume it.” They can’t. There’s just too much of the former and not enough time for the latter, at least in director Brady Corbet’s 2018 fictional biography of a Millennial monster born in gunfire and forged by the markets of commerce and art. Natalie Portman, herself just on the elder edge of the generation, acts as hard as she can as various genres, styles, and tones fail to cohere around her. (Actually, that might accurately sum up the entirety of our strange zeitgeist.)
It’s tempting to view Portman’s character as an ersatz Lindsay Lohan, who haunts We Can’t Even in three forms: first, as a teen whose eyes are as clear as her skin in Mark Waters’s infectious Heathers-but-make-it-earnest instant classic Mean Girls (2004); then as a Hitchcockian woman in trouble in Chris Sivertson’s outrageously despicable 2007 I Know Who Killed Me; and finally, as ruins to be plundered, a victim of fame-obsessed teenage girl robbers in the banal The Bling Ring (2013), in which Sofia Coppola attempts to eviscerate the vapidity of unearned wealth.
“I Know is a bad object,” Clark says. “But it interests me to have obviously compromised and deeply unpleasant work next to prestige Oscar winners, and have that conceptually make sense.” It does. A Millennial point of view—rattled and jittery, paralyzed neither by fear of death nor by irony, but instead by sheer overload of self-reflection—begins to come into focus. Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 ode to terrorist chic is shimmering and morally ambiguous but utterly itself. His pack of teenagers blows up buildings and hides in a shopping mall, gathering in wait like The Breakfast Club’s bad apples, as cool as Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation, but so lost in capitalism’s hall of mirrors that all they can do is die, paralyzed by indecision, as they blow up the world.
Or not. Sex work, the ne plus ultra of capitalism, might be failing the trans women of color in Sean Baker’s riotous Tangerine (2015)—the rest of their world is surely failing them—but their charisma is so concentrated and specific, it feels like it could only be captured via the tiny funnel of the iPhone camera, on which Baker filmed the feature. More lusciously traditional, if just as radical in content, is Barry Jenkins’s exultant 2016 film, Moonlight. Replete with references to still photographers, like Earlie Hudnall, Jr. and Viviane Sassen, Jenkins not only breathes new life into the hallowed queer coming-of-age-and-out format, but astonishing richness and vitality into the often muddy format of digital film. Meanwhile, Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother (2009) enlists actual still photographs to freshen up its tale of an abused queer teen. Once the narrator’s sexuality is revealed, a larger-than-life poster of River Phoenix, the tragic thinking man’s hunk of Gen X, is shown to have been hanging over his bed the whole time. Like much of Dolan’s work, it’s unsubtle, but it works.
The documentaries in We Can’t Even argue that if you’re going to rebuild a world in your own image, you must first know who you are. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s 2017 Ferguson documentary, Whose Streets?; Seyi Adebanjo’s heartbreaking 2013 short for a life cut short, Trans Lives Matter! Justice For Islan Nettles; Cecile Emeke’s 2015 oral history of the modern African diaspora, Strolling; and Wu Tsang’s WILDNESS (2012), a fabulous examination of how representation and gentrification intersect in a Latinx bar for LA’s queer and trans communities (fiercely narrated by the bar itself) all demonstrate what might be Millennials’ true gift: nerve. If awarding children with an endless parade of trophies gives them the confidence to tell these crucial, complicated stories with such prowess and zeal, let’s build trophy factories across the land.
“Older generations misunderstand the idea of identity politics,” says Clark, a Millennial himself. “They see representation as self-absorption. And there’s an idea that narrative storytelling devices are played out and conventional. But it’s like, for whom? I’ve never seen a black Muslim girl’s coming-of-age story.” So he programmed one: Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn (2018), a highlight of the series.
Other highlights include Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), in which Greta Gerwig somehow seems to be in Technicolor, despite the black-and-white film stock, as she problematizes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into a kind of manic depressive Holly Golightly. Today, it seems wiser and weirder than ever. But few works of art in the past twenty (or forty) years have the empathy and aesthetic pleasure of Minding the Gap. Bing Liu’s rightfully beloved 2018 documentary was assembled in real time as he and his skater buddies grew up and fell apart. Shot over a dozen years and set in the golden hours of impossibly tender, doomed light, it deconstructs masculinity more nimbly than gender studies master classes, and for sure will be studied in them. For Liu, manhood arrived in cahoots with cheap editing software, and his careful eye for both the perfect shot and the fearless prompt posit reality television as conscious-raising seminar. It’s the best-case scenario for a life documented from the jump, and a glorious sign of the artistic potential of a generation rewarded and lambasted for just being, and seeing, themselves.
We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through August 6, 2019.