The word “millennial” is so often spit off the tongue, used as spiteful Baby Boomer shorthand for a lazy, petulant generation that’s perpetually young and naïve about how the “real world” works (though the oldest millennials are 38 in 2019), despite allegedly killing industry after industry. We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film, an expansive survey currently playing at BAM of films about, for, and by millennials, takes aim at those stereotypes, presenting a bold syllabus on the economic, political, and societal conditions unwillingly inherited then reshaped by the most contentious generation.
The series chronologically begins in 2003 with Gus van Sant’s Elephant, a film about a school shooting, in which the director turned his Gen X-defining lens on an emerging characteristic of the nascent generation. Elephant is steeped in a new kind of American violence; after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, and particularly after 9/11, America was becoming a more violent nation, one simultaneously cripplingly paranoid about the violence (from within and abroad) and unwilling to stop it. Inspired by the 1989 Alan Clarke movie of the same name that brutally, wordlessly portrays a series of murders in Northern Ireland, van Sant’s Elephant is a lyrical, timeline-skipping, day-in-the-life tale look at two teens who carry out a school shooting.
Far from preachy, Elephant is a meditation on and prediction of the rise of violence in young American life. Before millennials were millennials, they were kids, reacting to the idea they could be murdered in their classroom. Brady Corbet’s 2018 film Vox Lux picks up this moral inquiry 15 years after Elephant’s release and hundreds of school shootings later. Vox Lux begins in 1999, with a school shooting in Staten Island that leaves 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) injured but alive. True to teen girl resiliency, Celeste and her sister Ellie write songs to cope. Those songs become popular; fast forward a few years and Celeste (now Natalie Portman) is a world-famous pop star with a host of issues. Vox Lux has the gift of perspective Elephant does not and is able to expose the deep psychic trauma these incidents inflict in the short- and long-term, to their victims and the culture at large. Series programmer Ashley Clark told me via email he got the idea for the series after his first viewing of Vox Lux, which he sees as a “millennial origin story.”
Another early millennial artifact on display in We Can’t Even is Lindsay Lohan’s pop-culture trajectory; the series includes her 2005 classic Mean Girls (Clark described it to me as “an iconic millennial text”) and the 2007 anti-classic I Know Who Killed Me, a nasty piece of exploitation prominently featuring Lohan as both Madonna and whore in dual roles as a good-girl kidnapping victim and her sex-worker double. Clark ties these two films to Lohan’s personal and career highs and lows — Mean Girls is all Tina Fey-scripted spark and snap, while I Know barely seems scripted or directed — and they are fascinating to view in tandem as a child star trying to force her way into the “adult” world. Instead of relying on her natural charisma, Lohan is oppressively sex-forward in I Know Who Killed Me. Self-conscious about her acting skills, Lohan may have fundamentally misunderstood why we liked her in the first place.
And another millennial darling — the anti-Lindsay Lohan — Greta Gerwig is present as star and director in the series. Frances Ha, Gerwig’s first writing collaboration with her now-partner Noah Baumbach, shows Gerwig as an artist understands exactly why we like her. Her Frances is an archetypal aimless Brooklyn millennial who wants to dance for a living, but just isn’t able to make it happen; Gerwig’s sensitivity and keen ear ensure we actually like Frances, despite herself. Female friendship rings throughout We Can’t Even — Mean Girls and Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, 2014) would make an excellent triple feature with Frances Ha — and Frances’ relationship with her BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner) is that film’s anchor. Similarly, in Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut Lady Bird, the most important relationships in Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) life are ultimately with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and her mother (Laurie Metcalfe), not the boys she agonizes over (Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges).
Queer communities of color are lovingly given space in We Can’t Even, from Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight, to Wu Tsang’s 2012 first-person trans nightlife documentary Wildness, to Aurora Guerrero’s sweet 2012 Chicana teen romance Mosquita y Mari, to Sean Baker’s 2015 breakthrough neo-screwball Tangerine (made with significant input from trans women of color, including delightful stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor). These are nonjudgemental stories of queer people existing despite a system that hates them are a necessary piece of the series. Progressive politics also appear frequently in We Can’t Even, including documentaries on Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, Laura Poitras, 2014), protests in Ferguson, Missouri (Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan, 2017), and far-right conspiracy theories (Personal Truth, Charlie Lyne, 2017).
There is a tenor of anxiety to almost every single one of these films, a vibration in the background never allows the characters (or the audience) to let their guard down completely. In Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016), Kristen Stewart’s Maureen is still dealing with the grief of losing her brother when she starts receiving texts from him. Good Time (Josh & Benny Safdie, 2017) is about two brothers (co-director Benny Safdie and Stewart’s most famous ex Robert Pattinson — a book could be written about the two Twilight alumni/millennial superstars’ moves to international independent film) who could maybe just make it if they successfully rob a bank (of course, they do not).
But no film does apocalyptic pessimism and paranoia like the highlight of the series, Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 Nocturama, in which a group of young French leftists set off a series of simultaneous public bombs then hide out overnight in an evacuated mall. The vague politics, the lack of a manifesto, the rich dilettantes, the model-beautiful, multi-racial/ethnic group: it seems like Bonello is parodying millennial political engagement as all anger, violence and slogans, no substance. But Bonello (a Gen-Xer himself) is a much more thoughtful filmmaker than that; he understands the millennial psyche worldwide is undoubtedly shaped in part in reaction to the unavoidable threat of public violence, like the damaged souls in Vox Lux. Nocturama itself, and the terrorist action at its core, are both homages to May 1968-style French radicalism. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film Masculin-Féminin includes the intertitle “Les Enfants de Marx et de Coca-Cola.” Bertrand Bonello understands — as do most of the brilliant filmmakers in this series, as does Ashley Clark and the team at BAM — millennials are the true children of Marx and Coca-Cola.
We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film continues at BAM through August 6, 2019.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.