‘We’ve gone through a lot of trauma’: why millennial stories are saving Hollywood

After decades of older generations portraying the age group inaccurately, a new wave of auteurs are shaking up the film industry.

Millennials: avocado-smushing, beard-grooming, selfie-snapping snowflakes, or beleaguered inheritors of a world pre-ruined by their elders? Defining a generation accurately often comes down to who’s doing the defining, especially when it comes to movies. Usually you have to reach a certain age before you get to make a film, and by the time you do, the generation before you have already said their bit. However, there comes a time when the power tilts, and for millennials, that time is now.

A new season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York offers a snapshot of the millennial generation coming of age in the movies. Called We Can’t Even (how’s that for a generation-splitting title?), it offers a first draft of what the millennial movie canon might look like (according to the Pew Research Center’s definition, a “millennial” is anyone born between 1981 and 1996).

The selection is eclectic, from Richard Linklater’s (white, American) Boyhood to Céline Sciamma’s (black, French) Girlhood; from iPhone-shot trans drama Tangerine to Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour; from Mean Girls to Moonlight. What emerges is a picture far more nuanced than the standard stereotypes. And without an avocado in sight.

“A lot of the criticism of millennials feels very disconnected to the context of lived experiences,” says Ashley Clark, senior film programmer at BAM, who curated the season. “While a lot of the discourse around millennials in general is that we are spoiled, self-obsessed, shallow, etc, this generation has actually gone through a hell of a lot of traumatic things, from 9/11 all the way up to Trump, the financial crisis, Black Lives Matter, and rapid developments in technology that have changed the way we communicate and imbibe information.”

One thing these films underline is that coming of age in the early 21st century is rarely carefree. On paper they are the most educated, diverse and materially privileged generation in history but, in the western world at least, millennials are also the first to face dimmer prospects than their elders. Some of them became pop stars and tech entrepreneurs; many more are paying off student debts in dead-end jobs that didn’t require a college degree anyway. What’s more, they have been guinea pigs in a digital revolution that has transformed civilisation in ways we are still barely getting to grips with.

According to Clark, the one film that encapsulates the millennial experience is Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, which follows a troubled female pop diva through the early 21st century. Beginning with a high-school shooting, the film traverses a landscape marked by terrorism, trauma, anxiety, celebrity, exploitation and alienation. If there is a defining millennial snapshot in Vox Lux, it would be a mock music video with our teen star (played by Raffey Cassidy) in a glittery mask, singing an electropop ballad called Hologram from the back seat of a motorbike speeding into a dark tunnel.

Then again, no less representative a snapshot would be the teens in Girlhood, who steal smart dresses, rent a hotel room, get wasted and dance together to Rihanna’s Diamonds. Or Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network, alone with his laptop, mechanically hitting refresh as he awaits a response to his friend request to his ex-girlfriend. Or perhaps the airheaded, reality TV-obsessed LA teens of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring saying “Oh my God” as they break into Paris Hilton’s shoe room, having used the internet to work out where she lives and when she’s out of town.

Not that older film-makers can’t be sympathetic. Gus Van Sant (born 1952) and Richard Linklater (born 1960) created key Generation X texts, such as My Own Private Idaho and Slacker. And both have captured millennials with wisdom and tenderness: Van Sant in his school-shooting drama Elephant, Linklater with real-time, coming-of-age story Boyhood.

An interesting case study here is another Gen-Xer, Noah Baumbach, and his partner Greta Gerwig, 14 years his junior. As well as Frances Ha – the Gerwig-starring study of a klutzy dreamer confronting maturity – Baumbach mapped out the generational divide in 2014’s While We’re Young, in which fortysomethings Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts befriend Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried’s younger, hipper couple, and come to realise how middle-aged they are. While Stiller keeps up with tech trends, Driver listens to Lionel Richie on vinyl. The film’s sympathies lie with Stiller, and these on-trend hipsters turn out to be more calculating than they first appear.

Now, having helped define her generation as an actor, Gerwig has come into her own as a director, and the contrast with Baumbach’s view is striking. She based Lady Bird on her own experiences of growing up in the early 2000s. Her millennial heroine, played by Saoirse Ronan, is winningly vulnerable and insecure, but also smart, opinionated, defiant and determined. Lady Birdcould be seen as the story of a young woman getting the naivety knocked out of her, through various encounters, often bruising, often illuminating, with friends, boys and family.

“It wasn’t until I actually started writing Lady Bird that I thought: ‘Where’s this movie? Why hasn’t this one been made?’” Gerwig told Variety in 2018. It hadn’t been made before because few people from Gerwig’s generation had the means to make it. Instead, their stories were told by older, male auteurs.

Millennial film-makers are increasingly getting their hands on the levers of cultural power and taking their films to refreshing places. French-Canadian virtuoso Xavier Dolan just turned 30 and is already on his eighth feature. Dolan captures the raw intensity of what it means to be young, passionate and, often, gay though movies such as Mommy and I Killed My Mother (written when he was just 16).

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart felt like a significant upgrade of a classic teen-comedy template. Then there is 28-year-old Bo Burnham, who trained his eye on the generation below his in the recent Eighth Grade, with a social media literacy born of his own experience as a former YouTube star. The list of millennial auteurs is expanding: Ryan Coogler, the Safdie brothers, Damien Chazelle, Chloé Zhao, Brady Corbet. The era of millennial storytelling is just beginning.

Now that they have control, the final question is, will millennials want to keep telling their stories via cinema? Just as technology has transformed the way we live, so it has altered the way we watch. In their lifetimes, millennials have seen the changes: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, downloading, torrents, on-demand, streaming, VR.

Not to mention HD and 4K televisions that make home viewing an attractive alternative. Cinema is no longer the sole or even the dominant platform, especially when it comes to serious drama. So maybe it is up to the millennials to save cinema now. But if they don’t feel like doing that, who can blame them?