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2011 In Film: Is It Just Us, Or Is The World Ending?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 31, 2011

This year has not been particularly kind to youth on the big screen. “Kids suck the life out of you,” John C. Reilly drunkenly opines to other terrible parents in Carnage But at the movies it’s increasingly the other way around: The world is sucking the life out of those who stand to inherit it.

In 2011, our onscreen alter egos were besieged on all sides by cults, sexual predators, terminal illnesses, space aliens and wayward planets. We experienced crises of the romantic, familial and existential varieties. The most vaunted member of our ranks, Harry Potter himself, straight-up died. Mr. Potter was resurrected, of course, but for every happy-ending Harry we saw this year, there were plenty of millennials who met less cheery fates. The movies of 2011 were trying to tell us something deep and troubling: A world in darkness is dealing a cataclysmic hand to the next generation. Or, to put it another way, the kids are no longer all right.

I see a new Gen-Y narrative taking shape. We will attempt something resembling adult love, only to watch it crumble. If we’re lucky enough to get a job, it will require us to atone for the greedy, world-damaging sins of our superiors.

Maybe we’ll rebel. We’ll decide this society is worthless and escape to join a different one, until it becomes even more dangerous than the one we left. But none of it will matter by the end, when the planet will explode regardless.

Pessimistic? Melodramatic? Sure. But then again, the films of 2011 were pessimistic and melodramatic. In their scope and specificity, Like Crazy, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia were desperate to demonstrate that this generation’s worries will both ensnare the individual and engulf the planet. High unemployment. Student loans. A world caught in political and financial decay. A movie industry that thought we harbored deep nostalgia for The Smurfs. That same industry can prophesy dark times ahead for its key demographic even as it panders to our wallets with robots, superheroes and vampires. Talk about biting the hand that feeds. We gorged ourselves on tales of invincible crime-fighters and immortal lovers, and then in the next theater over we saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt battling cancer. Pass the popcorn. But films — at least the serious ones — are supposed to reflect and synthesize the world around us, even if we can’t (or won’t). That’s the key service they’ve always provided to younger generations, second only to a cheap date. Maybe it’s beneficial sometimes for the movies to tell us, “You know what? Not everything can be solved with know-how and explosives. Sometimes the deck is just stacked against you.”

Take Young Adult and The Future, films in which overgrown children dodge responsibility. In the first, an alcoholic ex-prom queen haunts the people from her more prosperous past like a belligerent ghost; in the second, one-half of a 30something couple freezes time when he’s unable to deal with the realization that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. The protagonists each has his or her own methods, rooted in differing degrees of reality, but the goal is the same: to sidestep the notion that at some point they will have to “grow up.” Like the rest of the 2011 crop, these two films are cinematic soothsayers, laying out one possible vision of where we’re headed if we allow past mistakes and our own colossal expectations to crush us.

For young adults everywhere, it’s a better message to have than not. Still, it might be nice if next year our filmmakers could lend a little more support to their intrepid heroes before the world sucks the life out of them. If there’s any life left by then, that is. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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