A cinematic guide to confronting postgrad malaise.
It’s getting to be that time of year where if you listen closely, you can hear millions of parents asking soon-to-be graduates about their plans for the future. Transitioning out of an academic setting can be tricky. And with it comes a very specific kind of funk; a strange and aimless limbo aggravated by the dreaded…so – now what?
I’ve heard that millennials are adult babies and back in the day dinosaurs walked uphill both ways and payed for their entire tuition with the quarters they earned selling lemonade during the summer. Which is to say: the financial and social pressures shouldered by recent graduates are very real existential threats. Thankfully, small comfort though it may be, the disenchanted former student has more than a few cinematic role models to choose from. The postgrad film, older sibling to the high school coming-of-age-movie, concerns the hazy period after graduation when an ex-student, diploma in hand, is faced with a creeping sense of emptiness. Now what indeed.
To ease the pain (and ennui), here are four of my favorite films that confront, and potentially soothe, post-collegiate malaise:
The Graduate, dir. Mike Nichols
The Graduate follows “award-winning scholar” and listless 20-something Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who returns from his undergrad with no sense of purpose or plan for the future. Despite parental pressure to figure his shit out, Benjamin spends his days poolside (“[I]t’s very comfortable just to drift here”) and embarks on a truly misguided love affair with a much older woman, falling in love with her daughter in the process. While Benjamin’s fantastically ill-advised romantic life is perhaps less relatable (we hope), his postgrad ennui is right on the money. Lest we forget, it was The Graduate that blessed us with the “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” meme – truly an accomplishment en par with all those Oscar noms.
Early in the film Benjamin tells his dad he’s worried about his future and it’s nothing short of heart-breaking; how he struggles to articulate this confession; that he’s obviously been crying; that his dad doesn’t clock either of these things. Benjamin is forcibly dragged downstairs where he’s barraged with we’re soooo proud of you’s and what are you going to do with your life’s and have you thought about graduate school’s and all those totally not paralyzing things people say to you once you’ve graduated.
The scenes of Ben floating in the pool do a good job of underlining his bewildered stasis, as much a symptom of his aimless postgrad ennui as his ill-advised affair, itself “just this thing that happened along with everything else.” It’s a poignant metaphor; the weight of the water, its pressure, the isolation, desired and otherwise. It’s an oppressive sense of numbness not even a grand romantic gesture can budge, not permanently anyway.
Soundtrack Highlight: Simon & Garfunkel – April Come She Will, from Sounds of Silence, 1966.
Postgrad Malaise Red Flags: Thousand-yard stares; using sexual relationships to deal with your identity crisis; “this kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time.”
The Darjeeling Limited, dir. Wes Anderson
Strictly speaking, The Darjeeling Limited isn’t about post-graduation. But it suffers from a similar disease: from a kind of comfortably terminal bittersweetness. The film follows three brothers who reunite in India after one is almost killed in a motorcycle accident. “I want us to become brothers again,” vows Francis, “and to become enlightened.”
After graduation, there’s a tendency to cling to the past; to leave tiny, reluctant fingerprints on the things you care about. So too with the brothers of Darjeeling: Peter appropriates their dead father’s belongings; Jack routinely checks his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine; and Francis is convinced that profundity can be salvaged from family tragedy. Late in the film, the boys visit their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) who has been living/hiding in a rural Indian convent. When she gleans that they’re still processing their father’s death, she sternly tells them that the past is the past. “Not for us,” replies Francis. By this point they’ve figured out that you can’t slap “Find Closure” on an itinerary. No matter how adorably laminated.
In this way, Darjeeling hums with a warm, if softly anxious, transience – a hazy meandering through the Rajasthani desert; through hillside temples; through lovingly decorated train compartments. The brothers chase after trains without urgency; board buses in the middle of nowhere only to immediately disembark; rip up return plane tickets and buy a moped. Even the train – which Jack helpfully points out is on tracks – gets lost at one point. This is what I think makes Darjeeling a valuable piece of postgrad cinema: that feeling lost or noodling about isn’t a guaranteed means of self-discovery; that you can’t brute force inner peace; that the path to accepting change isn’t always a linear one.
Soundtrack Highlight: Shankar Jakishan – Title Theme, from The Bombay Talkie (soundtrack), 1970.
Postgrad Malaise Red Flags: Cigarettes that never really get finished; the way Adrien Brody rubs his temples; falling in love with strangers on public transit.
Kicking and Screaming, dir. Noah Baumbach
If I ever remember who originally recommended Kicking and Screaming to me I’ll either buy them a beer or push them into a snowbank. As you can tell from my everything I’m Liberal Arts grad, so when I first watched Kicking and Screaming (the film by and for Liberal Arts grads) it spoke directly to the wounded part of me that likes academia and being a part of it. The premise is familiar enough: a group of recently graduated friends trying to readjust to no longer being students. The result is a ruthless and deeply funny investigation of what I’m going to lovingly call Hamlet-syndrome; the kind of paralysis that plagues intellectuals when they’re forced out of the secure rhythms of college to actually do something, be it kill an uncle or find gainful employment…to-may-to, to-mah-to.
Kicking and Screaming begins on graduation night and right out of the gate someone in the background is drunkenly philosophizing for the sake of argument that violence is always justified some of the time. Otis (Carlos Jacott) proposes a dispassionate toast to “life after college,” and proceeds to ask the group if they ever forget things when they drink. And before you can say “Prague’s a cliché,” Grover’s girlfriend has extinguished their plans of living together in Brooklyn to pursue her master’s degree abroad. What always strikes me about Kicking and Screaming is the dim and distinctly undergraduate fear that everything after college will savor of aftertaste; that “what I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” There’s also a creeping sense that feeling nostalgic is bad – but doing nothing is worse. A Philosophy/German major played by Eric Stoltz has been hanging around campus for upwards of a decade working on his dissertation, moonlighting as a bartender, and cruising book circles. I know that guy. I worried about becoming that guy.
In spite, or perhaps because of, its relatability, Kicking and Screaming is one hundred percent navel-gazing. But it’s really biting and well-written navel-gazing. And considering I’m now the same age as the core cast, any ill-will I bare the film is probably just self-loathing at this point.
Soundtrack Highlight: Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Braver, Newer World, from Braver, Newer World (1996).
Postgrad Malaise Red Flags: “I thought you’d graduated”; auditing classes you feel like you missed out on; writing “go to bed” and “wake” up in your day planner like they’re two different events.
Ghost World, dir. Terry Zwigoff
Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (a devastatingly deadpan Scarlett Johansson) have graduated high school. Well, Enid has to retake a remedial art class over the summer, but they’re basically free. The plan is to live together in an apartment downtown.
A part of me wishes Ghost World had actual ghosts in it so that I could make a joke about its leads being mean spirited. They amble through suburban Los Angeles, idly mocking anyone they deem mockable, including Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, who they summon from the aether of the missed connections section as a cruel practical joke. Seymour should act as a wake up call for the directionless Enid. Instead, her pot-shots slowly morph into a kind of kinship, and eventually something more complicated than that. Soon, Enid must choose: between Seymour and Rebecca, between the past and getting on with her life…whatever that means.
Ghost World offers an achingly funny and poignant look at disaffected misfits, and along the way, it ticks a lot of postgrad blues boxes: the tender awkwardness of living at home while trying to be your own person; how friendships unravel slowly; how plans fall through; how lukewarm “adult” responsibilities can feel. Usually, Enid wears her wit like a leather jacket, but early in the film we see her in a rare moment of vulnerability: she sits silently by her record player, staring at the ceiling, letting the weight and scariness of her unapologetic alienation rest for a minute. It’s an existential lethargy at home with postgraduates…and ghosts.
Soundtrack Highlight: George “little hat” Jones – Bye Bye Baby Blues, from Ghost World (soundtrack), recorded 1930.
Postgrad Malaise Red Flags: Developing an obsession with diners; unironically collecting vinyls; “I’ll definitely give you a call.”
- St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
- Slacker (1991)
- Reality Bites (1994)
- The Last Days of Disco (1998)
- Funny Ha Ha (2005)
- Into the Wild (2007)
- Adventureland (2009)
- Tiny Furniture (2010)