Undeniably, not the sort of thing most folks would volunteer for.
Mark Mann‘s Generation Um is a challenging, deliberately-paced film about introverted and mostly unlikeable characters doing questionable things. It isn’t a mumblecore movie (as some are calling it), but it is a movie about misunderstanding, so it seems fitting that critics have miss-categorized it. (I’m looking at you, Variety and LA Times.) If you don’t like slow moving character studies then you probably won’t find much to love about Generation Um, but I do, and did.
John (Keanu Reeves) just celebrated his 40th birthday. He lives in a slummy New York apartment with his obese cat and his 20 (or so) year old cousin Rick (Jonny Orsini). He spends his time with Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), a couple of hard-partying ladies in their early 20s, and he avoids pretty much everyone else, including his fretting mother who only wants to wish him a happy birthday. John wanders the city drinking coffee in the day and booze in the night. He has a million mile stare and doesn’t talk much, and when he does it tends to be nonsensical pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo**. New York is expensive and John relies on a variety of means to pay the bills, some of which are probably illegal. He mopes because he doesn’t know how to break the mindnumbingly repetitive cycle. Hell, not even the occasional blowjob in the local pub’s bog can put a smile on his face, for fuck’s sake! John drags his sad-sack face around the city, eating cupcakes and milling about his bedroom until we get to the first turning point, about 30 minutes in, when he follows a crowd of balloon-toting weirdos to a park where they perform a Country Western cowboy hoola-hoop dance… thing. Some idiot sets his camera on the ground and walks away. John, being an opportunist, gets himself a new video camera and narrowly escapes the Cowboy mob in the movie’s one and only action sequence.
John proceeds to record squirrels in the park before turning the camera first on himself and then on Mia and Violet, roommates and BFFs who prance around in their underwear and stare deeply into mirrors as though trying to conjure the deeper meanings of the universe. They’re also really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. John follows them around their house as they take turns telling stories that may or may not be true. They’re the stars of their own reality TV show, and they reveal details of their lives with an un-bashfulness that can only have come from growing up with the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo instead of mindful parents. The characters seem to exist by floating from one moment to another, stuck in a big swirl of bland repetition, and the audience is tugged along for the ride. John doesn’t seem too interested in breaking free. If this was rehab, he’d be somewhere between recognizing he has a problem and dwelling on potential ways to escape the cycle, but still miles away from any meaningful action. John, Mia or Violet are lost souls who love and need each other despite getting to this point from vastly different avenues. None of them are keen to rock the boat, but I don’t get the sense that any of them are particularly afraid of drowning, either. It’s a fragile balance, and one which requires a lot of trust.
A few small surprises arise as the histories and relationships are revealed, and there is even a twist ending of sorts. It’s quite a bit lower on the whoa! scale than, say, if John revealed he could see dead people, but it’s impact on the story is no less important. What the final 5 minutes does is give new context to everything we’ve seen. What had felt like a loose, rambling story suddenly tightens and you realize, looking back, that everything is in the movie for a reason and it builds to the only logical conclusion. The best endings are those which are both surprising and completely obvious, and the finale here was an expertly executed maneuver which I fear the subtlety and beauty of was lost on the critics who dismissed the movie as aimless.
Mann‘s experiments with blocking put the focus less on the characters and more on the details of their surroundings — in most cases, those spaces tell us more than any movement or dialogue could. The editing is nicely done with humorous moments coming on the back-end of shots that are deliberately held for a half-beat too long. The movie isn’t quite linear but it’s not quite non-linear, either. Mann deliberately dislodges the audience from time and space, and if you feel a bit lost well then welcome, brother. It isn’t a stretch to think the audience should have been given Hello My Name Is… stickers upon arrival.
Reeves has played similar characters in the past but not to this degree and his performance holds the film together. Bojana and Adelaide are promising young actors who buy into their roles and give wonderful and completely unglamorous performances. As with the characters they embody, there is a lot of trust going on here, and it pays off.
Generation Um might be in my favorites list at the end of the year, or it might not. Who knows. At times we are treated to well-lit sets and nicely composed shots, and other times the camera shakes like we’re filming a Bourne movie and some of the dialogue comes across like first year university students who’ve just discovered Nietzsche. But what I do know is I want to watch the movie again, and I’m going to tell my film-loving friends to do the same.
*: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
**: One of my favorite scenes is when John is in a cafe with military buddy Charles (Daniel Sunjata). John’s musings about his apartment building’s left and right turns reminded me of the scene in The Dreamers where Michael Pitt is fascinated how his lighter fits perfectly on the table cloth.