Zillennial Warfare

Even though there’s a clear birth-year boundary between Millennials (born 1977-1995) and Gen Z (born 1996 – 2015), you’ll often hear them grouped together, usually in complaints by older generations who are becoming increasingly out-of-touch and out-of-time.  When a Boomer complains that food service is slow because “Millennials” are lazy and “No one wants to work anymore”, what they really mean is that restaurants are under-staffed because Gen-Z is finally demanding better working conditions for themselves than the last few generations dared to.  To my eye, there are some major, vivid distinctions between Millennials—who are old enough to remember life before the internet but too hopelessly addicted to ever leave it—and Zoomers, who are already pushing for a kinder, more authentic post-internet world.  It’s not yet as clearly defined as the boundary between the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism of Boomers and the checked-out apathy of Gen-X, though, mostly because younger generations have not yet had the advantage of guiding public discourse through decades of pop media.  That setback is changing as Millennials & Zoomers are getting old enough to have real Big Boy jobs in Hollywood & NYC, but the change has been gradual.  I was thinking a lot about that deficiency in proper assessments of Millennial Brain and Gen-Z Culture this past week, though, when I happened to see two thrillers that addressed those exact topics while sharing the same marquee. 

Emily the Criminal could not have been better timed to coincide with national headlines & online Culture War arguments over Millennial “entitlement” & debt.  Just as the Biden administration #triggered Boomers online by announcing concrete plans to (partially) forgive student loan debt, the financial-desperation thriller hit local theaters with a plot hinged on that exact conflict.  Aubrey Plaza stars as a food service worker who’s drowning in $70k of student loan debt from art school, something she cannot seem to make progress on thanks to low service industry wages and predatory interest rates.  So, she gets mixed up in increasingly risky credit card fraud schemes and subsequent bouts of hyperviolence.  The film is a little too subdued & old-fashioned for its own good, decades behind the times in its tone & style. In a way, though, it’s smart for a thriller about The Millennial Condition to echo the low-level crime thrillers Millennials grew up on in the VHS era.  For most of the runtime, Plaza’s student loan debt is an arbitrary excuse for a by-the-books, in-over-her-head thriller.  The generational culture wars only really come into play in a pivotal third-act scene where she finally lands an interview for a “real” job, only to discover during the interview that she’s applying for a full-time, unpaid internship.  She genuinely cannot afford to work, so she has to steal.  The Gen-Xer interviewer calls her spoiled for turning down the “opportunity” & “exposure” she’d receive for her unpaid labor, mirroring the exact arguments about Millennial entitlement that were raging online while the film was in the theater.  In its filmmaking sensibilities, Emily the Criminal feels distinctly behind the times, but it could not be timelier in its themes of generational debt & desperation.

The generational commentary is much more pronounced in the Gen-Z satire Bodies Bodies Bodies.  It’s not contained to a single scene; it’s the entirety of the text.  Bodies Bodies Bodies is an ensemble-cast murder mystery in which a Florida mansion full of mean, coked up, trust fund Zoomers violently #cancel each other during a good, old-fashioned hurricane party.  It literalizes & escalates online mob mentality in a chaotic, real-world environment where morality-police dogpiling has lethal consequences.  If Emily the Criminal supposes that the #1 threat to Millennial prosperity is exponential debt, Bodies Bodies Bodies supposes that Gen-Z’s biggest enemy is the generational impulse to turn on each other at the slightest political misstep.  Social media buzzwords like “toxic,” “triggering,” and “silencing” are wielded like weapons . . . along with the actual weapons they use to bash each other’s skulls in during their paranoid search for a killer.  As a satirical assessment of a generational zeitgeist, I’m not convinced that Bodies Bodies Bodies has Gen-Z entirely pinned down.  If anything, it’s mostly older generations who are terminally online at this point, as younger Zoomers tend to be lightening up & logging off out of boredom with most social media platforms.  If the generational commentary is at all convincing here, it’s in showing what a vicious, un-fun internet culture we’ve set up for these kids, who now only really check in for make-up tips, line-dances, and absurdist recipes.  Luckily, the movie also works as class commentary on the selfishness & cruelty of the wealthy, a topic that’s evergreen.  It also satisfies as a murder mystery, a rare example of the genre where the reveal is just as compelling as the tension leading up to it.

I don’t know that either of these movies are especially exceptional on their own terms.  My biggest takeaway from either was just continued appreciation of actors I already loved going in: Plaza in Emily and Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennott in Bodies, both of them stars.  As a pair, though, the movies were an interesting glimpse into how Hollywood perceives the differences between Millennials & Zoomers.  Millennials are now old enough to have their problems taken (a little too) seriously, while Zoomers are still at an age where they can only be assessed in comedic caricature.  That difference makes Bodies Bodies Bodies both the more fun and the less accurate of the pair. Gen-Z will eventually get their own grim, generation-defining dramas in due time, though, once Hollywood starts mocking whatever doomed generation follows them. It’s the circle of strife.

-Brandon Ledet

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