“I’m too nostalgic, I’ll admit it.”
“We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?”
“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory, and I didn’t have a good time.”
— Kicking and Screaming
“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
— American, traditional
Noah Baumbach makes movies about what it feels like to suddenly realize you’ve left the safety of a world whose comforts you took for granted, and about the tension between the impossible struggle to get back to that world and the dawning acceptance that you can only move forward. The growth through agony that the characters experience in Marriage Story; the atmosphere of being always on the cusp of something greater in Frances Ha; the search for identity when your family falls apart in The Squid and the Whale. All these people lost in the middle of something they can only occasionally understand. He returns again and again to this simultaneous sense of pursuit and being pursued, hounded on both sides by the tension between the passage of time and the too-late realization that things will never be the same.
His first movie, Kicking and Screaming, is in many ways his best expression of this because of how close he was to the subject matter: released a month before Baumbach turned 26, the film follows a group of recent college graduates who are all dragging their feet at the thought of having to move on and become real functioning adults in a world that they now realize will never be as forgiving, as controllable, or as ultimately theirs as was the campus, the dorms, the apartments, the bars, and the few short years they spent together. It’s a movie about people coming to wide-eyed grips with the unstoppable way that life only moves in one direction. They’re insecure and arrogant–in other words, they’re in their mid-20s–but filmmaking itself is, on some level, an act of arrogance. You have to proceed with the assumption that the story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it are not only good, but deserving of people’s time and money. Baumbach shot his shot, in other words, and it landed.
Don’t let that lead you to think that the movie is boring or drab or (overly) self-involved or melodramatic, or any of the other terms that could accurately describe what it’s like to go through that period in your young adulthood when you realize that This Really Is It. It’s far funnier, and wittier, and eminently more quotable than real life ever was. (At one point, one of the characters observes, “What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.”) This is part of the movie’s strength, too: Baumbach isn’t slogging through some po-faced quandary about what does it all mean, but guiding his characters through friendships, breakups, and a gradual but earned coming of age.
At the core of the film is a group of male friends all trying to figure out their friendships and relationships: Grover (Josh Hamilton), Skippy (Jason Wiles), Max (Chris Eigeman), and Otis (Carlos Jacott). Grover is morose because his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo) has accepted a fellowship in Prague, while Skippy is feeling similarly because his own girlfriend, Miami (Parker Posey), has made it clear that she’s ready to move on. They all spend an inordinate amount of time dissecting their life decisions and then follow that up with dissections of those dissections, equipped with the kind of stage-ready quips that are only at hand in the movies.
There’s no grand plot to speak of–Grover’s deliberations on whether to follow Jane to Prague set up some minimal stakes–but Baumbach turns that into a strength because the film itself is about how, in that period of life, it’s common to struggle with just what exactly to do next. The previous two decades have been scripted down to the semester, and now you’re free to go out and make up your own rules. It’s enough to give anybody, if not a panic attack, at least a sober moment of contemplation. The group fends off these moments of clarity with trips to the bar and the kind of rambling, list-centered, trivia-based discussions that are so often associated with Generation X. (The prompt “Can you name me eight movies where monkeys play a key role?” inevitably leads to the response La Femme Monkita.)
And this is a true Gen X movie, made by a Gen Xer, starring Gen Xers, encapsulating so much of the attitude of aloof disillusionment that, real or imagined, would become closely associated with the age cohort. Its smaller budget and limited marketing meant it would never have the branding of something like Reality Bites or even Empire Records, nor did it have the benefit of being made from the position of age and relative safety enjoyed by movies about aging Gen Xers exploring new stages of life, such as the John Cusack double-bill Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. In other words, Kicking and Screaming is too busy being about actual members of that generation to be able to pretend to represent them. It’s hyper-specifically of its time, which gives it an authenticity that in turn makes it relatable to everyone.
The film’s final minutes (no spoilers) culminate in a moment of decision and connection between two characters, but the scene isn’t a triumphant victory or a bittersweet acceptance of loss. It’s merely a step into the unknown, the moment after the pitch is released and the bat has been swung but before anything has connected. As the film cuts to black, leaving us and its characters forever suspended between the past and the future, the needle drops on Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation,” which itself had only come out in June the year before. It’s a song about the conflict between what you want and what you have to offer, about someone who wants to tell the truth but can’t seem to find the words; about what it feels like to turn around and find that so much time has passed. It’s easy to imagine the characters in the movie listening to the song, heads bobbing to the beat but minds gliding over the lyrics. They haven’t lived enough to know what they mean, and by the time they do, there’s no way to go back and tell their younger selves. Baumbach’s film captures the electric hum of that revelation, and it echoes long after the credits finish rolling.