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

Good Boys (2019)

I laughed at least once for every minute of Good Boys, which I don’t know that I can say about any other mainstream comedy in recent memory. Even other coming-of-age sex comedies like Blockers, Booksmart, and The To Do List can’t compete with this film’s joke-to-laugh ratio, despite being objectively Better films on the whole. Of course, humor is subjective, especially considering the specificity of this film’s POV in its suburban teen boy sexuality, so I can’t claim that every filmgoer will have the same high success rate with Good Boys‘s many, many gags as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the film is far more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for, though. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys.

A major aspect of this film’s success is that it acknowledges its own limitations from the outset. Its story of young tween boys’ friendships struggling to survive the social perils of sixth grade is about as low-stakes as any narrative that’s ever reached the big screen. A couple larger comedic set pieces within the film (including drug trafficking, an interstate pile-up, and a frat house brawl) distract from the plot’s total lack of meaningful consequences, but for the most part the film keeps its conflicts intimate & small. The pint-sized trio at its center want to attend their first “kissing party” at the coolest kid in sixth grade’s house. In order to achieve that modest goal, they have to avoid getting grounded, dodge teen girl bullies, try their first sips of (room temperature) beer, and maintain their solidarity as a unit even though they’re clearly outgrowing the friendship that binds them. The details of the obstacles that stand in their way can be outrageously broad, leaning into the tweens-confronted-with-sex-drugs-and-violence humor promised in the ads. Their goals & circumstances remain aggressively minor, however, and much of the humor reflects how the least meaningful bullshit imaginable means everything to you at that age, because the world you occupy is so small & inconsequential.

There’s an intelligently mapped-out relationship dynamic maintained between the three titular boys as their meaningless, go-nowhere adventure shakes their friendship to its core. Jacob Tremblay stars as the loverboy heartthrob of the group, the only one who has an active interest in reaching the kissing party destination. Keith L. Williams & Brady Noon co-star as the angel & devil on his shoulders, respectively, staging a constant moral-compass tug-of-war that steers his focus away from his girl-kissing objective with distractions like Doing the Right Thing and Searching for Beer. Of course, even the most wicked of the trio isn’t all that maliciously evil in the grand scheme of human morality. Not only are these children too young to get into too much trouble; they’re also from a nicer, more considerate generation that’s being raised with a less toxic model of a masculine norm. If we’re comparing this film to Superbad, it’s impossible to not notice how much sweeter, more vulnerable, and more aware of the value of Enthusiastic Consent these children are compared to the generations who preceded them. Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy friends who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future.

If you’re looking to Good Boys for broad jokes about children doing cusses and failing to differentiate what is and what is not a sex toy, the movie is more than happy to supply them. And those jokes are funny too! They’re just not all that’s going on. I won’t say this film is better constructed or more emotionally satisfying than its fellow 2019 Superbad revision Booksmart (with which it shares a Run the Jewels needle drop and a goofball-dad performance from Will Forte), but I do think it equally clarifies what makes the earnest generation of youngsters growing up right now so unique & promising while also garnering more guffaws-per-minute on a joke efficiency scale. As a pair, the two films work well in signaling that the kids are alright, a refreshing sentiment in a mainstream comedy landscape that likes to stigmatize Gen-Z as #triggered #snowflakes (while also often miscategorizing them as Millennials for some reason). It also proves that you can participate in that open-hearted earnestness without sacrificing the horned-up raunch and deliberately offensive edginess everyone pretends is disappearing from mainstream comedy in these supposed “safe space” times. You’re just no longer tolerated for being an inhumane dickhole while doing so. Be better. Be a good boy.

-Brandon Ledet

Booksmart (2019)

There isn’t much new thematic territory left in the femme teen sex comedy template for Booksmart to expand upon. Blockers and Wetlands have already pushed the potential shock of the genre’s gross-out sex & drugs gags to their furthest post-Pink Flamingos extremes. The Edge of Seventeen has already saddled its protagonist with the brutal “Wait a minute, I’m the asshole” epiphany in its respective us vs. them high school clique dynamics. The To Do List has even done a little of both while also telegraphing Booksmart’s exact narrative conceit: an overachieving high school valedictorian squeezes in a concentrated, hedonistic excess of sex & drugs experimentation after graduation to better prepare for the upcoming social challenges of college. Speaking as an enthusiastic fan of this genre, it would have been more than okay by me if all Booksmart did was echo these previous accomplishments while plugging in new jokes & characters into the already well-worn template. Instead, it defies the odds by offering two new variations on this femme teen sex comedy theme: a comedic voice distinctive to Generation Z and more Gay Content than the genre usually makes room for. This film didn’t need to be exceptional to be successful, but it uses those two variations to carve out its own new grooves within its genre anyway.

Kaitlyn Dever & Beanie Feldstein star as two smug overachievers who lord an unearned sense of superiority over their more relaxed classmates, whom they perceive to be losers partying at the expense of their own futures. Horrified to discover that the very kids they’ve been slagging for being slackers have all gotten into prestigious colleges despite not being obsessed with schoolwork, the girls decide to catch up by cramming in an entire high school career’s worth of hedonism into one night. Booksmart is essentially a road trip movie from there, with the girls suffering wild run-ins with hard drugs, awkward sex, and weirdo strangers on their way to an epic class party. Everything about his age-old set up plays out exactly the way you’d expect, except that the tone is incredibly specific to the kids of Generation Z. The open-hearted empathy, ease with queer identity, social media expertise, and feedback loops of women-validating-women are all specific to Gen Z sensibilities and all welcome reassurances that the kids are more than alright. The tragedy of the protagonists’ decision to block out the rest of their class throughout high school as a preemptive defense tactic is that they were missing out on some really sweet kids with a lot of genuine good to offer. That’s a far cry from the high school clique dynamics of yesteryear, and it gives me a lot of hope for this generation that’s going to be picking up the scraps after our Millennial dysfunction.

Booksmart is not the most consistently hilarious example of the femme teen sex comedy, but it is one with an unusually effective emotional core – especially in how much screentime it affords queer teen identity. I also suspect that it’s a film that will only become funnier on rewatches, as the side characters’ individual quirks will already be in sharper relief. Like our protagonists, we initially see side characters as broad archetypes, so that the idiosyncrasies of their respective personae & performances don’t initially register. As we get to know the kids better, their one-liners & character arcs start earning much deeper belly laughs, so that most of the movie’s heart and humor initially feels corralled to its climactic pool party. That’s also where first-time director (and long-time actor) Olivia Wilde pours most of her filmmaking creativity, culminating in a few lengthy tracking shots that match the emotional tension & catharsis of the moment. It’s a sequence that clarifies so many themes and personalities that are only gently prodded throughout the rest of the film that I feel like I immediately owed it a rewatch. Not only would that give me more time to hang out with the tech-savvy sweethearts of Gen Z, but it’ll also be an easy way to support a genre that I love with some minor financial backing, so that maybe more of these films can get made in the future – whether or not they feel the need to reinvent the wheel.

-Brandon Ledet