Everything We Never Were

Something happened to me in the middle of being absolutely enchanted by Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies – I realized that films about “young people” (for lack of an accurate umbrella term) will never feel the same way to me again.

I guess the idea of art being a medium for memory isn’t supposed to be shocking anymore. I’ve always felt that music operates as some sort of perceptible manifestation of memory, especially now that it’s become clear that no new music will ever surpass the sounds of my past. That’s okay, though – music ought to be a trigger for nostalgia anyway. The greatest songs exist as a yearning for the past and not a celebration of the present.

But film is different, particularly chatty romantic movies about people aged 20-31. They have, for my entire adult life, served as either glimpses of my future or chronicles of my present. I saw my post-graduate self during the mid-90s in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. In the mid-aughts, I recognized my then-current state of affairs in Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Haha. But as I watched Luke hang-out, laugh, flirt, and get platonically confused with Kate in Drinking Buddies, I realized that I will never be like these people again (and that, if I still do end up being like them, it would be a grand, unromantic tragedy).

It’s one thing for a band like Real Estate to make me nostalgic for late 80s indie guitar and early high school summer. It’s quite another for a contemporary movie about contemporary people to illicit memories of the not-so-distant past. Drinking Buddies made me recall things from my years as a younger, freshly-disillusioned quasi-adult – those feelings of ambiguity and incompleteness that characterized much of my 20s.

The best mumblecore movies have always been about vague relationships. There’s something about the subject matter that dovetails perfectly with the genre’s intrinsic confidence in plainness. Ambiguous and awkward semi-romantic moments are rarely tackled in mainstream film, and are therefore free of the cultural signposts embedded in soundtracks and iconic scenes. There’s no Lloyd Dobler holding a boom box equivalent for that frustrating, unrequited, and unspoken feeling – you just know it and live with it and carry the heavy, anonymous silence with you. It is a familiar silence that makes mumblecore movies uniquely moving – like an inside joke or a little knowing gesture shared between two close friends.

Luke and Kate aren’t “just close friends,” or maybe they are, and are just too close, and maybe that’s the problem. They both have significant others, which is simultaneously a drag and a relief: as long as they belong to someone else, they can find mutual comfort in the impossibility of their unspoken love. But when Kate breaks up with her boyfriend, and the comfort disappears from Luke’s once casual face, holy shit.

I know that face. I can still remember what it feels like to possess that face. I kinda miss that helplessness. The years between ages 20 and 30 are the puberty of adulthood. Every adult issue and concern feels new and life-defining during that window, but unlike in actual puberty, where every new feeling is a bite-sized preview of the real deal, some of the first things you experience in your 20s also become your last. It’s the inherent tragedy of that particular stage in life that people tend to overlook because it doesn't have a definite expiring date. For some it’s 28, for others it’s 39, or whenever one finally gets married, raises kids, or gives up. I don’t know if I’ve reached mine yet, but popular culture will forever be the sounding board of the young, and there will be movies that wouldn’t be able to speak to me anymore, and only stir memories and old dormant aches. It makes me sad to think that the kind of movies I like would, from now on, be mere recreations of old feelings.




I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

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