The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
There is a moment in “Toni Erdmann” when a man looks at his daughter after she has ignored him during a marathon shopping trip with her boss’s wife. “Are you really human,” he asks? The line’s earnest delivery draws laughs, channeling the film’s successful pitting of a career-obsessed daughter against her prankster father in the most embarrassing situations. But the question strikes an anxious nerve running through several recent films, a number of which were featured in the New York Film Festival this fall. All of them are propelled by questions about the fate of the millennial in a challenging world.
The answer, the films tell us as they grapple with possible futures for the young, is not obvious. The rhythms and rites of passage of growing up have been rocked by economic uncertainty, rapid technological change, and identity crises emanating from tectonic shifts in borders dividing nations, races, and the sexes. As a result, this new coming-of-age cinema is ambivalent in its representations of young adults. While it depicts struggles to build careers, find love, and relate to parents, these new films betray concern for a lost generation.
Coming-of-age narratives saw their last great boom in the late fifties, while riding the New Wave into the cultural revolutions of the next decade. In the United States, “Rebel Without a Cause” forecasted rebellion against the suffocating morality of McCarthy’s America. François Truffaut birthed the rapscallion Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows” in France a few years later. Times were ripe for outsiders fighting outdated traditional values.
Today’s cohort of coming-of-age films errs less on the side of revolt and closer to a general malaise both medicated and sustained by our smartphones. And the narrative spotlight has moved from straight white men to women and people of color. With liberal attitudes generally prevailing in the ongoing culture wars, it is not so much that young upstarts must defy conservative mores as it is that they must find a place for themselves within a social order defined by disruption, precariousness, and novelty.
Ines, from “Toni Erdmann,” is one such protagonist who has tethered herself to her cell phone and her path as an ambitious young management consultant. Maren Ade’s film thrives on the unpredictable antics of Ines’s father, Winfried, which keep the audience on its toes. Winfried interrupts important business meetings for his daughter with jokes, prosthetic teeth, and whoopee cushions. The most impressive feat of his gags, however, is to slowly transform her otherwise banal professional situation into a curious deviation from what makes her human in the eye of the viewer.
“Toni Erdmann” presents Ines as an aspiring member of the global business elite. Her father is the comedic — yet very serious — foil to its definition of success, its goals of streamlining operations, its sexism, its eccentric sense of style and luxury, and its indecency in downsizing and outsourcing. Sensing a deep unhappiness in his daughter during an uninvited visit, Winfried stages nothing less than a drastic intervention in her affairs. Ines experiences an existential crisis in its wake. “Toni Erdmann” urges us to reconsider the pressures we face in our drive to be successful with heart, honesty, and humor.
Kristen Stewart’s Maureen in “Personal Shopper” strikes a stark contrast with Sandra Hüller’s Ines in both profession and temperament. While Ines invests her energy and hopes in her consulting work, Maureen lives in wait of a sign from her deceased twin brother from beyond the grave. Working as a personal shopper for an insufferable celebrity in Paris, she spends nights at her brother’s house seeking closure. Like in “Toni Erdmann,” Maureen earns a living navigating a globalized professional sphere in a foreign country where she has no roots — only a dead brother and his surviving partner.
And we quickly learn that Maureen is similarly dissatisfied with her job and lifestyle. When harassed by anonymous iMessages, daring her to try on the untouchable clothes of her employer and to assume her identity, she takes the bait. The plot underscores an obsessive relationship with digital media. An unhealthy attachment to the phone, the Instagram photo, and the selfie leads to troubling ends. “Personal Shopper” suggests that the destiny of the young may be to be haunted, if not by the dead themselves, then by the fear of missing out–by the digital reminder of their relative isolation.
Avoiding new technologies all together, Adam Driver plays a stoic poet-bus driver in Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.” Far enough off the grid to refuse a cell phone, let alone a smartphone, he cannot even bring himself to make copies of his handwritten poems. Yet his partner, one of the subjects of his art, spends her days cultivating what seems to be an Instagram personality. She discusses her unique visual style, which the viewer can interpret as an excessive use of black and white. She buys into the sharing economy with a cupcake-making profit scheme, and purchases a guitar and YouTube lessons because it matches her wardrobe and interior decorating–and wouldn’t she make a great country star? “Paterson” finds poetry in the figure of the unconnected young adult.
Perhaps the title that most harkens back to the genre’s roots, “Moonlight” is a lyrical and contemplative consideration of identity’s formation and self-discovery in three acts. Barry Jenkins’s film follows a young gay black man in the projects of Miami from childhood to the age of adult. With his race, his nascent sexuality, and social class all stacked against his odds of flourishing in the contemporary US, Chiron must find surrogate parents and friends, and build himself up for his own survival.
“Moonlight” is the narrative progeny of the work of Marlon Riggs, and especially his film “Tongues Untied” (1989). It is a long-overdue depiction of the intersecting forces of race, class, and sexuality that act on the process of maturation of a protagonist who has seen few film roles — the young gay black man. Yet in its depth, heart, and artful framing, “Moonlight” transcends the limiting constraints of identity to offer a probing vision of the difficulties of growing up.
From the socioeconomic trap of the ghetto to the instability of the corporate boardroom, films about growing up at the NYFF this year display a generation on the edge of uncertainty, with digital technology as both its weakness and the strong glue holding it together. They arrive during an electoral contest in the U.S. that has been framed as the most significant one in a generation. While its results may be said to define the millennial’s national identity for decades to come, cinema reminds us that who we are is a summation of where we are from, all our experiences, and who we want to strive to be.