In 1995, writer-director Noah Baumbach made his directorial debut at age 26 with the Gen-X period piece Kicking and Screaming. The movie is a foray into post-collegiate confusion and anxiety whose director was not long out of college himself-and it feels like Baumbach’s memoirs. The four protagonists of Kicking (Grover, Max, Skippy, and Louis) form an impenetrable clique and safety net for each another, but as most of us do, they eventually realize their camaraderie is holding them back. Their inside jokes grow old to everyone around them (multiple characters tell them, “You all talk the same”), and in due course they have to grow up and grow apart.
Though some tropes are heavy-handed (main character Grover repeatedly loses his driver’s license and passport-in other words, his proof of identity), the film is a charming nod to that bewildering period after college when we’re thrust from the cushion of academia into the terrifying real world. The movie also feels timely in 2009′s economic atmosphere, when a second interview at the Video Palace is worth a minor celebration, and retreating back to undergrad is more appealing than braving the work force.
Professional student Chet (Eric Stoltz, one of Baumbach’s stabled actors), who’s been an undergraduate for ten years, is at first laughably pathetic, but by the end of the film, his choice to remain in school is understandable next to the flailing of the other characters. There’s a nod to the inherent absurdity in padding a resume (“I drove a truck!” Grover exclaims, and Max suggests, “How about ‘job duties included transportation of gourmet cheese products throughout the metropolitan area?’”), and constant reference to being broke and jobless.
In the opening scene at a graduation party, Grover (Josh Hamilton) discovers his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo), with whom he’d planned to move to NYC and start a life, is instead headed for more school in Prague, leaving him stranded with his college buddies. Grover and Jane can hardly look at each other; their dialogue is stilted and distant, they deftly skirt the subject at hand and snark at each other; one wonders why they’re together in the first place.
Tender, prettily photographed flashbacks reveal Jane as a smart, quirky ingénue (a predecessor, perhaps, to characters like Natalie Portman’s in Garden State) who captures Grover’s heart, and we realize they’re meant to be together, half a world apart or not. Even though Grover’s attempt to join Jane in Prague is thwarted by his lack of personal identification (wink, wink), the film ends on a flashback of the two of them talking about growing old together. Kicking and Screaming feels like a wittier, more poignant, less painfully hip Reality Bites.
Although he made two forgettable movies in the late 1990s (Highball and Mr. Jealousy) Baumbach’s fourth feature film, autobiographical drama The Squid and the Whale, was his best critically received to date. It took the 2005 indie awards circuit by storm with its cringe-worthy, droll script and backward familial relations. The film follows a pair of self-centered, pretentious, egotistical Brooklynites and their two children through a nasty separation. Baumbach’s script will make you snicker and wince at the same time-excruciating candor mixed with immaturity and pretension does not a comfortable exchange make.
Parents Bernard and Joan (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) battle it out with awkward silences and terse exchanges, but watching teenaged Walt and 12-year-old Frank imitate the worst of their parents’ flaws is the most poignant and startling facet of the film, because it’s true: we all parrot our parents at some point; some of us just had more tolerable parents.
The film opens with Frank’s declaration to Walt, “You and Dad versus me and Mom,” which ostensibly refers to a family tennis match, but effectively spells out the film’s domestic division. Mimicking his father’s continuous criticism of women’s looks, Walt (earnest up-and-comer Jesse Eisenberg) says seriously to his girlfriend Sophie, “I wish you didn’t have so many freckles on your face.” In his quest for intellectualism, Walt describes “The Metamorphosis” as “Kafkaesque” and argues that The Magnificent Ambersons (not Citizen Kane) was Orson Welles’ masterpiece, though he’s never seen the film. (As an aside, Eisenberg’s equally sincere role in this year’s dramedy Adventureland cements him as a worthy contender in today’s awkward, Michael Cera-influenced heart-throbbery.)
The youngest Berkman, Frank (Owen Kline, adorable offspring of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), curses incessantly, gets drunk on cheap beer, and engages in weird sexual behaviors as a way to cope with his parents’ failed relationship. At one point, looking in the mirror with Joan, he tells his mother gravely, “You’re ugly.” Moments like these are the very definition of grotesque: although the characters are kind of deplorable, they’re also pitiful in their honesty and obvious pain.
While both feel autobiographical (Baumbach openly refers to Squid as a retelling of his childhood, and his literary and cinematic references are a satirical nod to his Vassar education), The Squid and the Whale feels like a purge, whereas Kicking and Screaming is more of an engaging snapshot of a confusing moment in life.
The films’ low budgets ensure very little fancy footwork when it comes to editing and cinematography-but in these kinds of movies less is more. Baumbach’s words hold their own, and while we’d probably rather not live in his cinematic world, it’s a delight to watch his characters flounder around in it-if only because we see a bit of ourselves.