‘While We’re Young’ from a different worldview

Generation X and hipsters clash from the sideline

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Adam Driver as Jamie and Ben Stiller as Josh in “While We’re Young”; Rating: R, Grade: B

Writer-director Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”) sets out, in his latest film “While We’re Young,” to skewer the pretensions and First World problems of the artistically privileged by inserting razor-sharp barbs that slide in, but furiously rip the flesh at the slightest tug. And Baumbach has not one, but two big meaty fish on the hook this time. The first is a Generation X couple – Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) – of artistic means, unencumbered by children, although they watch with satisfied derision as friends lose themselves to their black hole sun of an offspring.

The second catch, a pair of Brooklyn hipsters – Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) – he, a budding documentarian, infatuated with Josh’s more esoteric brand of work as well as a huge jonesing for all things analogue (vinyl records, VHS tapes, actual books, old-fashioned street gatherings and walking the old subway and rail lines), while she, an artisan, producing her own brand of ice creams.

A subtle joke emerges – so indirect, in fact, it barely registers subconsciously – that what we are witnessing is an anthropological study of post-millennial liberal White society at what could be considered its decline. I posit this claim as an African American critic, one not generally moved to throwing down the trump card of race as a means of silencing debate, which such action most certainly does. Rather, here, I bring race into the discussion because it serves as a reflective lens to better understand and appreciate the two supposed poles Baumbach hammers into place.

As a man of a certain age, a few years older than the character of Josh and engaged in my own similar concerns about the artistic relevance of my work (and also in the midst of acknowledging my own advancing slide along the physical down stroke), I found myself uncomfortably shuffling in my seat. This rendering felt more achingly intimate than mere artistic façade in its portrayal of Jamie’s existential concerns.

And yet, there was also something in the mirroring that felt incongruent as well. I can’t escape, at times, the sense of disconnection that overtakes me, when I gaze at mainstream representations of Gen X-types. These predominately white and male reflections have a sharpness and light that never wanders down the dark and complex alleyways that their African American compatriots cross and sometimes linger in. For years, I couldn’t help questioning whether or not I would actually reach this cultural milestone that Josh takes for granted – to be fortysomething, educated and with a record free of incarceration. Jamie was never bothered or forced to fend off the weight of statistical labels. He never had to consider his identity in a post-Civil Rights culture. He was free of the infighting along marginalized (and polarized) lines.

Which makes his concerns now – as Baumbach presents, and obviously owns them himself – seem enviably idealistic, even as the film makes it clear they are also worthy of a good-natured skewering. This is classic generational divide conflict – the entrenchment of the older age, sinking their fingernails into the moment, as the next group wraps their arms around the time. We want to leave our mark, and will do so, to the detriment of the times and ourselves, if necessary.

But what about those of us (people of color, women, the LGBT community) who labored along the margins of the margins? There’s a version of this story – “While We’re White/Straight/Men” – that will never exist, sadly (I would argue), which would potentially be a braver and far more honest portrait of enduring divides we will never bridge.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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