The “Twilight” franchise has made loads of money by equating teenage life with the world of half-naked werewolves and sparkly vampires stalking submissive girls. A new generation of American directors came to this year’s Locarno Film Festival hoping to correct this misconception. Looking at these movies as a single body of work, they paint a concise and intriguing portrait of the current generation of young Americans as braindead Millennial zombies.
“Compliance”‘s Becky (Dreama Walker) works as a cashier in a burger joint in Ohio together with her friend Kevin (Philip Ettinger). She’s not particularly happy about her job, but prefers to do nothing about it beyond occasionally snarling at her overstrained supervisor. “Starlet”‘s Jane (Dree Hemingway) likes doing drugs and hanging out while waiting for another porn acting job. When she buys a thermos at a yard sale from Sadie (Besedka Johnson), she finds a stash of cash in it. While spending the money on fake nails, clothes and other necessities, she uses her abundant free time to stalk Sadie to soothe her guilty conscience. Things are even worse for “Ape”‘s Trevor (Joshua Burge), a pyromaniac who tries to become a stand-up comic. Gifted with much more talent, “Jack and Diane”‘s Diane (Juno Temple), who’ll soon be shipped off to boarding school in Europe, meets Jack (Riley Keogh), who works in retail. After a night of wild passion, the two girls realize that their blossoming love manifests itself in form of a Cronenbergian werewolf monster.
The movies cover a wide range of ideas, stories, and styles, but they all share characters with striking similarities: all of them work in temp jobs or other occupations with no sustainability. None of them show any sign of ambition or curiosity about a career. One could argue that these characters are a manifestation of the economic hard times facing modern young people. But these movies aren’t so much about jobs as attitudes — clearly none of them are even remotely interested in their work: Becky is constantly late; Trevor, knowing a talent scout will attend the comedy night, doesn’t even think about improving his show or coming up with new jokes. Even Diane, the overachiever of the bunch, hasn’t chosen her path but had it thrust upon her.
There is no rebelling against an evil boss, or undermining the obnoxious rules of the workplace. There doesn’t seem to be a statement or message here — just getting up in the morning and going through the motions. Like George A. Romero’s zombies, these men and women slowly stumble through their day in a state of phlegmatic stupor.
The same peculiar indifference that permeates the Millennial zombies’ work is also reflected in their social lives. They have little meaningful contact with family workers or friends. What in other movies would be considered a worst-case scenario, is daily routine here: Jane’s “best friend” steals from her, gets her in trouble at work, and tries to undermine her budding relationship with Sadie. “Compliance”‘s Kevin realizes that Becky is being held at the office of the burger restaurant because a caller, claiming to be a cop, has coerced the manager into strip-searching her. He leaves her in the lurch despite sensing a dangerous situation.
Love is also not an option. Most of the Millennial zombies are single, few of them are even close to serious relationships. Only “Jack and Diane” contains the notion of love — where it’s portrayed as a feral beast that threatens to rip the characters to shreds. Jack and Diane can never overcome their angst or the emotional distance it creates. The movie, just like the others in the bunch, carries the sentiment of “yeah, whatever…” (an interesting juxtaposition to the former “yes, we can!”).
It seems like there’s nothing that can engage these characters in life anymore. Nothing is of interest, nothing can accumulate any kind of emotional reaction. Problematic, even traumatic experiences, elicit hardly more than a shrug, and the filmmakers appear about as engaged in their characters as their characters are in their lives. None of the films call out this epidemic of callousness — on the contrary: they embrace and even romanticize it.
In Bob Byington’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” winner of the Jury Award at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Max (Keith Poulson) serves restaurant customers dozily and marries some girl he conveniently meets at work, loving her with the same enthusiasm he has for his job: none. His best friend is sleeping with his wife — not that Max would care, he is busy humping the babysitter, who just happened to be available. Byington, who is slightly older than his fellow filmmakers as well as his characters, is the only one to comment on the situation. His character Max is the ultimate Millennial zombie, who cannot even be bothered to grow up and therefore ends up spending his entire life in lethargy.
Beatrice Behn is a German film academic, curator, and freelance film critic. You can follow her work on www.icoff.de. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.