Exit Poll: “We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film” Reveals a Generation Plagued, Aimless, and Gay

Published July 29, 2019

Still shot from Mean Girls.

Exit Poll is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films and events our editors are attending. This week: Greta Rainbow attends BAM’s “We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film,” a series which explores the myriad ways in which our generation is trying to make sense of all the mess.

People love to slap a millennial tag on basically everything mildly shitty. But our generation contains more multitudes than a mere shade of pink. To showcase all that we have to offer, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presents “We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film,” on view through August 6. This must be the first time that Mean Girls, responsible for the universal death of the word “fetch” and the public’s inexplicable love of Glen Coco, is in conversation with police brutality. The movie many of us watched at every sleepover is presented alongside Whose Streets?, a collage of iPhone footage and Facebook posts reporting police brutality and citizen fightback in Ferguson, Missouri. Polarity is precisely how pop culture conceptualizes millennials—you are either checked out of the world (selfie-taking, brunch-eating) or blindly, desperately trying to change it (via Twitter). But if you are, in fact, one of the unfortunates born between 1981 and 1996, you’re likely just a person trying to make sense of all the mess.

It is the millennial mess—the chaos of the 21st century that collides with the confusion of becoming an adult—that populates these films. If there is such a thing as a “millennial film,” it’s one that tries to convey the feeling of both clutter piles, working in tandem. The anxiety in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is the same pain of every 17-year-old (especially those of the early-aughts, tragically convinced that camis and low-rise denim mini skirts are flattering). But against the curtain of post-9/11 New York, her confusion speaks for the city. That disaster was the first national tragedy that most millennials remember. And once conscious of atrocity, it never stopped; we were forever marked by them. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant gets in the mind of a school shooter, and Vox Lux, the series opener, watches a massacre survivor after she becomes famous overnight for her memorial song. The film also functions as a vehicle for Natalie Portman to sing Sia in sequins, indulging in this generation’s pop cultural lust and therefore making Portman my favorite Old Millennial.

“We Can’t Even” is not two straight weeks of the Plagued Millennial. There’s the Aimless sub-genre, with the camera always searching—for some kind of purpose in a Beverly Hills walk-in closet (The Bling Ring), or for value in the Facebook video rabbit hole you fell into after your aunt tagged you in a meme (the overall effect of The Human Surge). And then there’s Personal Shopper, which, despite its plot involving a dead twin brother who used to be a psychic medium, is spookiest when it depicts the banality of the everyday. The only tangible relationship the titular personal shopper, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), has is with her iPhone; it’s her against the luxury she can’t keep and the people she can’t see, with a boyfriend she only Skypes with and a boss she only texts. The supernatural gives her a meaningful life that riding her Vespa from the Chanel flagship to a 6th Arrondissement apartment doesn’t.

To avoid painting an excessively dark and sardonic picture of young people, BAM gave us a lot of the Queer Millennial—enough to be hopeful that we are way more gay than anything else. The films that tell the stories of 21st century queerness are especially tactile. Sometimes they’re stories of love—and when love is as beautiful as Moonlight (if you’ve only watched it on Netflix in bed), see it on the big screen. Sometimes they’re stories of sex—Beach Rats is similarly gorgeous, but it revolves around the denial of love as a possibility, a pain cracking open on the Coney Island boardwalk.

These films take on the Big Issues, but ultimately, their protagonists are just trying to live their lives. “I’m not messy, I’m just busy,” spits Greta Gerwig in Aimless Millennial favorite Frances Ha. As I leave BAM to go get drinks with my fellow 20-somethings, I’ll say something to the same effect, discussing my various tribulations in between the topics of presidential candidates and Whitney Biennial controversy. None of us can even, anymore, and this group of films can commiserate.