2015 might go down in the history books as the year I officially became a Noah Baumbach fan. Don’t be afraid, I’m not delusional, I’m talking about my personal history. Although there is nothing delusional about loving Baumbach’s films. First, it was the supremely enjoyable While We’re Young, then I rediscovered why I reacted so profoundly when I first saw The Squid and the Whale as a teenager. Now that I’ve seen his directorial debut Kicking and Screaming, I’m ready to proclaim him one of the most astute observers of human behavior working today.
It might be the fact that Baumbach’s characters, and their problems, tend to tap into some very dark and vulnerable parts of my own personality, but even if you can’t exactly relate to the problems of this bunch of white dudes, you can certainly recognize the level of scrutiny and detail in the way Baumbach molds these characters. Kicking and Screaming shares quite a bit of DNA with the bourgeois intellectual work of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, and was unfairly ignored (both by audiences and critics) during its initial release. It wasn’t until Squid and the Whale that Baumbach broke through as an important figure in American cinema, and not until Criterion released the movie on DVD in 2006, that Kicking and Screaming was rediscovered and given the reputation it deserves. I will never understand how a movie as specific as this one could be so easily dismissed.
Well, actually, I kind of do. You just have to read a plot summary of the thing. So you don’t have to leave this page, let me provide a quick one: Kicking and Screaming is basically the story of a group of college graduates who realize they must escape their ivory tower and enter the real world, and find ways to retreat to their immature behavior (or to not graduate at all) thanks to their growing insecurities. I know it sounds familiar, and if I had provided bits from the movie’s clever dialogue, you might have mistaken it for yet another independent movie about talking twenty-somethings. But this is so much more than that. One of Baumbach’s biggest strengths as a director is that, while he never abandons his sense of humor and always shows empathy towards his characters, he doesn’t shy away from giving in to the more unpleasant parts of his characters’ personalities.
What most dumb movies about talking twenty-somethings lack is self-awareness, which Kicking and Screaming has in spades. It’s not that these other movies aren’t truthful to what it’s like being a twenty-something, it’s that they refuse to examine said existence beyond the way the characters (and by proxy the filmmaker) feel. Yes, there are plenty college graduates that spend their time having pseudo-intellectual conversations and waxing poetic about trivial nostalgia items, but Baumbach is not just presenting this, he is trying to understand why that is the case. There is no other way to put it. These young men are trapped up their own asses, but by giving us the full picture of why they say and do so many stupid shit, we don’t end up judging them, but understanding them.
Never mind the superficial differences, the biggest thing Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach have in common is that their movies feel like a therapy session. These directors are extrapolating and exploring their inner self and the understanding of their surroundings by testing them in front of an audience. Sure, the test is technically fiction, but the testing is relentless. Such explorations of personality can feel like a manifestation of narcissistic self-hate in the hands of other directors *ahem* Birdman *ahem*; Baumbach’s miracle is that he manages to be both merciless and compassionate to his characters. He is not displaying the deep flaws of characters as pieces of dirty laundry, he is trying to work through them.
The past decade has seen lots of writing be dedicated to figuring out the prevalence of the “man-child” in American mainstream media. That guy who refuses to grow up and mature out of his pubescent ways. Kicking and Screaming becomes even more valuable when seen through that prism. The difference between an Adam Sandler character and the protagonist of this movie is that there is no glorification of immaturity here. It is not treated as capital-P problem either. It’s just a reality. It’s just something that happens. One of the many effects privilege has on white men across the world, and thankfully, something they can work through.
The release of Mistress America can’t come soon enough.