The remarkably consistent Noah Baumbach returns with While We’re Young, a sharply well-observed and thoughtful comedy filled to the brim with life-affirming wit and wisdom. It feels like his most empathetic and personal film to date, which draws on the themes of adulthood and nostalgia with a sort of infectious vigor that kept me charmed the entire time. While its depiction of generational division is inherently timeless, the movie also has an uncanny sense of time and place that constantly keeps things relevant and relatable to adults of any age.
The story centers around middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who feel increasingly alienated from friends who insist that having a baby will change their lives for the better. Fortunately, their social anxieties about aging and impending irrelevance begin to subside when they strike up a friendship with hipster (yes, I said it) twentysomething couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Their carefree attitude and effortless zeal begin to rub off on Josh and Cornelia, until Jamie’s work on a new documentary feature begins to call the motives of the young couple into question.
Authenticity then becomes a more prevalent theme throughout the film, as Josh and Cornelia begin to strip away the layers of ironic detachment that cover their new young friends. There’s an element of presentation with Jamie and Darby that is immediately attractive to the older couple; Josh borrows an affinity for pork pie hats while Cornelia even attends a hip-hop dance class with Darby. But the question always lingers: how much of this is a show? What are Jamie and Darby getting out of this? The movie does a very good job of providing open-ended answers to those questions, leaving us with enough to go on but also enough to speculate on their true nature.
Of all of the film’s brilliant cross-generational examinations, the most rewarding is its depiction of the relationship that the two groups have with technology. Most movies would take the easy route, having the youngsters doing technological laps around the old folks for laughs, but it’s the twentysomethings here that have a more old-fashioned way of living. A mid-way montage highlights this juxtaposition beautifully, cutting together shots of Ben and Cornelia clutching their iPhones and Kindles with Jamie and Darby loading up a VHS copy of The Howling or selecting from a vast collection of vinyl records. Cornelia even remarks “It’s like their apartment is filled with things we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it!”
That quote also implies a type of bittersweet resentment that almost seems inevitable as one ages. No matter how old you are, there is always someone younger that you can choose to begrudge. What While We’re Young demonstrates in its closing line is a type of acceptance of this, followed by a final moment of levity that nicely ties all of the film’s themes together. Whether you’re old, not yet old or somewhere in between, this movie is well worthy of your time.
The wonderfully weird but not entirely successful Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter begins with the title character, played by Rinko Kikuchi, finding an abandoned VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo buried in the sand on a beach. Curious, she takes the tape back to her apartment and studies the film with quiet intensity, taking scrupulous notes and even taking sketch paper to the screen to complete a drawing. Kumiko takes the “true story” disclaimer at the beginning of the film seriously and treats it like a documentary, although the entirety of Fargo is completely fictional and the note was intended as a small bit of stylistic satire from the Coens.
This is lost on the troubled and lonesome Kumiko, who increasingly grows weary of her meaningless desk job and the impending pangs of adulthood. When she sees Steve Buscemi’s character bury a satchel of money in the middle of a snowy Fargo field, she almost can’t believe her good fortune. After relinquishing her adorable bunny companion Bunzo, Kumiko journeys from Tokyo to Minnesota with only a stolen company credit card and a hand stitched map that she believes will lead her to the unclaimed treasure.
To make matters more confusing, Kumiko is itself based partially on the real events surrounding Takako Konishi, whose story is told in depth in the film This Is a True Story. What director David Zellner and his brother Nathan have done is taken the elements of truth and fiction from all of these idiosyncratic narrative strands and created a sort of off-kilter urban legend of their own. Fittingly, they create an unusual tone throughout the story, with a mix of introspective character studyand fish-out-of-water comedy that’s sure to throw audiences off.
Despite this, the film’s most obvious flaw is that the Zellners really have no idea how we should perceive Kumiko. She’s our heroine and we want to see her succeed but ultimately, we know that she’s running a fool’s errand. How hard can we root for someone who travels across the world expecting a stolen credit card to provide ample funding for her trip? Even the gracious strangers that she meets on the way who try to aid her in her quest are eventually jettisoned by Kumiko. By the end, my sympathy and patience was running thin for her, which is a problem for a movie that focuses so solely on its main character.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather the Zellners go this route instead of trying to make Kumiko a “quirky” and “lovable” stereotype who is set up to be the butt of the movie’s jokes. Despite the main character’s struggles, Kumiko is never a mean-spirited work but instead, it is a much more thoughtful film with a peculiar edge and a memorably bizarre setup. Unfortunately, the journey ultimately does not pay off.
It Follows is a refreshing and engrossing new entry into the modern horror genre, centering around scenes that patiently built up dread as opposed to going for easy, knee-jerk scares. It has an intentional and almost disorienting throwback sensibility to it, recalling the chills of genre classics like Jaws and Halloween while still blazing a unique stylistic path of its own. Frankly, I wouldn’t classify it as an especially “scary” movie in the traditional sense, but rather a supremely creepy film that takes a relatively simple conceit and wrings it dry for maximum suspense.
The story centers around a young girl named Jay (Maika Monroe, who also starred in last year’s The Guest) and a curse that she contracts after having sex with the mysterious new guy in town (Jake Weary). After their encounter, he explains that she will now be stalked on foot relentlessly by a shape-shifting entity that is only visible to her until she “passes it on” to her next sexual partner. With the help of her friends, including her long time childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Jay must find a way to counter the unstoppable force as it pursues her at walking speed with a zombie-like level of persistence.
David Robert Mitchell, who previously wrote and directed the sweetly nostalgic Myth of the American Sleepover, recontextualizes his earlier film’s themes of sexual anxiety and adolescent metamorphosis within the framework of a chilling campfire tale. Once again, he proves that he has a knack for writing believable dialogue for teenagers and also displays an uncommon level of empathy for his characters, which is crucial for any horror movie to be a true success. These kids are thankfully much smarter than they’re typically allowed to be in movies like this, which allows us to root for them instead of shouting at them on the screen.
Mitchell, along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, also inject It Follows with visual flare that is subtle but incredibly effective. The camerawork often mirrors the patient efforts of the film’s antagonist, using slow and measured movements to sneak up on characters or draw our attention to apparitions that may or may not be lurking in the distance. I was particularly fond of a scene where the gang goes to a high school and instead of the following them each step, the camera stops at a center point and slowly rotates fully around multiple times to give us brief glimpses of the entity (or is it?) in the background.
Another huge asset to the film’s success is the memorable score by Rich Vreeland, which nicely amplifies the tension with its jolting synthesizer stabs that favorably recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho. Somehow, this movie is even able to include passages from T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky in a way that’s not nearly as pretentious as it could have been. Bold choices and details like these make It Follows one of the most richly inspired and downright fun horror movies that’s come out it quite a while.