Members of the millennial (Y) generation (myself included) have garnered divisive opinions from our predecessors, receiving epithets ranging from “the go-getter generation” to “generation Me”, and I think the contrast works well to capture the nuances of today’s young adults. Meanwhile, growing in tangent with my generation is the popular perception of film as academia, as a medium that can host rich meaning and invite formalistic study. Here, I’ll be dabbling a bit in both film as academia and anthropological study, turning to three different movies I feel best capture what it “is” to be a millennial.
1. The Social Network (2010), David Fincher
Fincher’s 2010 dramatic masterpiece The Social Network perhaps most neatly captures the growing horrors of generation Y’s transition into adulthood--that is, the compulsive need to stand out from the crowd on an increasingly impossible scale. Specifically, Social highlights the trendy mentality wherein if you don’t create something that doesn’t change everyone’s lives forever, then you somehow have failed to live up to your potential. Not only does this mentality apply immense pressure to its subscribers, it also exposes the sad reality of generation Y’s entitlement problem, with every member of the generation believing themselves capable of changing the world.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of online obsession and social networking, a defining trait unique to generation Y. Facebook dominates the lives of Social’s characters as much as it does my own, and those around me. The film’s concluding moments--in which the now friendless Mark Zuckerberg sits glued to his laptop, refreshing his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook profile, desperately hoping she’ll accept his friend request--are perhaps some of the most gently pathetic moments in recent cinema, and an allusion to how social media is increasing feelings of loneliness and depression across the world.
True, the film doesn’t portray every aspect of this generation’s college life accurately--I don’t go to Harvard, but “supermodel hot, over-sexed student body” is not a descriptor I typically associate with the place--but sex isn’t the main point of the film, so the misrepresentation doesn’t feel like a deal-breaker. In the end, The Social Network nails its true message: that the software designed to bring our generation closer together has in fact separated us like never before.
2. The Bling Ring (2013), Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s examination of LA youth bacchanalia defies narrative convention at every turn, which is perhaps why the film received such a middling, lukewarm reception upon its initial release. Perhaps audiences expected Coppola to tell her tale of kid robbers ripping off celebrities with the constant high energy and tension of a proper crime thriller, not unlike Fincher does in Social. Instead, while the film maintains an energy throughout, it’s of a more contemplative nature, one that sits back and observes its subjects with cool detachment. While the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes interpreted this detachment as a “failure to delve beneath the surface of its shallow protagonists’ real-life crimes," I’d argue that Coppola’s emphasis on her characters’ shallow materialism is her way of telling us she did delve beneath the surface, only there was nothing “deeper” to find.
The structure of the film supports this idea of an absence of depth. The repetition of robberies makes them become so flaccid that the audience becomes desensitized to them, to the point where theft of others’ possessions is the norm. Moreover, it is dizzying to hear the kids speak, but in an entirely different way than in The Social Network; whereas Social’s college extraordinaires spout line after polished line of acerbic wisdom or tragic naivete (sometimes both at once), the kid members of The Bling Ring struggle to articulate the silliest of non-ideas in phrases that almost always include the words “energy,” “universe,” “bitch,” and “like.” In short, Coppola’s film doesn’t simply portray the kids’ apathy towards their own alarming greed, but it embodies it.
I have no idea what Paris Hilton hoped to achieve by allowing Coppola to use her actual house to re-enact some of the burglaries, but boy does the setting effortlessly drive Coppola’s point home. Paris apparently lives in a veritable shrine to herself, the walls decked with framed pictures of her own magazine covers, her furniture embellished with throw pillows wearing her face. In the world of The Bling Ring the deepest one ever looks is at themselves, never within themselves.
Celebrity obsession, materialism, superficiality, jealousy, a sociopathic lack of respect for others; I’ll be damned if these traits aren’t all symptomatic of the Y generation, and Coppola displays them all with haunting accuracy.
3. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Stephen Chbosky
I felt compelled to include Perks of Being a Wallflower more out of a sense of obligation than personal desire, with my hesitation stemming from my belief that its representation of youth culture feels more manufactured than other films here. Specifically, Social and Bling seem to work from the ground up, in that they observe the world around them, digest their findings, and then produce opinionated films that have something important to say with honest voices. Meanwhile, Perks seems, in typical box-office/best-selling-novel fashion, to work more top-down, in that it caters to how its target demographic wants to perceive itself, rather than how it actually is. The protagonists are all wounded but dignified, disdainful of athletes, cerebral, and artsy--in a word, hipsters (although they’d never accept the label). The film (and novel) fancies itself a modern day Catcher in the Rye, and hopes to attract anyone interested in exiting “the mainstream”, well aware that being “in the mainstream” is becoming increasingly unpopular. Admittedly, it did its job--the film is inspiring and enjoyable to watch despite its penchant for manipulation. More importantly, it’s an important text to consider when defining generation Y because it shows what the generation aspires to be.
Ultimately, the films that best capture what I see and hear from my peers around me, as well as what I think and produce on a daily basis, are quite bleak. The Social Network, The Bling Ring, and Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight, both in content and in structure, generation Y’s narcissism, self-indulgence, detachment from reality, and increasing attachment to living online. The good news is, although grim, the films manage to highlight some of the generation’s strongest qualities, as well: the limitless ambition and creativity portrayed in The Social Network, or the high esteem placed on introspection, literature, and art as desirable traits in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even The Bling Ring, which undoubtedly presents the generation at its worst, is at least able isolate some of the essential problems of today’s youth culture, showing that our downfalls are not too numerous and severe so as to overwhelm. As screwed up as kids these days are, we just might make it out okay.