Streaming Showcase: How to Survive a Quarterlife Crisis
The midlife crisis is well-worn cliche in our culture and societal subconscious. A middle-aged man (or woman, but usually a man) realizes he’s pushing forty-five, his youth is flown, and he’s staring at the back half of his life and isn’t sure what he has to show for it. So he gets a fast sports car, or a younger woman, to convince the world and himself that he isn’t old.
The quarterlife crisis is less well-known and yet perhaps more scoffed-at – after all, at twenty-five, you still have most of your life ahead of you. It’s also the particular provenance of the educated class, because its primary symptom is being unsure what to do with your life after you graduate from college, usually with a degree that now seems useless – an admittedly First World Problem of being overeducated and unemployable. Even before the latest recession that made that status a stark reality, college graduates have sometimes struggled with moving on with their lives.
Here are three movies from three different eras on Netflix Instant that speak to the quarterlife crisis.
Disclaimer: Streaming availability is subject to change; films were available when this post was published, but may not be in the future.
The Graduate (1967)
When I first saw The Graduate, I was about sixteen and didn’t understand it at all. What was Benjamin Braddock’s problem? Why didn’t he just get on with his life instead of staying in this stasis that led to an affair with an older woman and her daughter? At that point, I was chomping at the bit to get finished with high school and go to college, because that’s when life really began – college would set me on the road for my life, no looking back, no hesitation. Then I graduated college and…had no idea what to do next. I didn’t want to do the thing my degree was in, I hadn’t gotten married or engaged or even close to it, and the college years that I thought would set me on my life’s path now looked like a blip in the rearview mirror that hadn’t prepared me for anything.
I rewatched The Graduate at age 23, and even though I still didn’t quite condone Benjamin’s relationship with Mrs. Robinson, I was right there with him in avoiding questions about my future plans and just wanting to float around the pool at his parents’ house because, really, anything more than that was unknown and scary.
The Graduate eventually focuses more on Benjamin and Elaine’s relationship, despite the interference of Elaine’s jealous mother, but ends with similar uncertainty in one of the most famous and enigmatic shots in movie history. They’ve escaped their families and their obligations, but to what? We don’t know, and neither do they. Their survival of the quarterlife crisis is questionable.
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Kicking and Screaming (1995)
I eventually returned to grad school after three years of clerical work unrelated to anything I did in college. One night my fellow grad students and I watched Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s directorial debut, and recognized ourselves instantly. We, too, were kicking and screaming our way into adulthood in an overintellectualized way.
The film opens on a party the evening of graduation, and we follow four guys who graduated, but who wind up sticking around their college town for the next year. One puts off heading to grad school in Wisconsin, another starts taking more classes at their old university, yet another starts dating a high school girl, while the fourth pines after his girlfriend, who has taken a scholarship opportunity in Prague. This reluctance to let go of college and move into a career is particularly acute for humanities students (it’s not explicit, but it seems all of these guys are), and my friends and I were all, you guessed it, in the English Literature program at a liberal arts school. The quarterlife crisis these guys were going through was the very reason most of us were in grad school (especially those of us in the masters’ rather than the PhD program) – we were putting off real life for another couple of years.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with being a perpetual student – a fifth character has been a philosophy student at the university for 10 years and seems to show no signs of moving on, but he’s more grounded than our central quartet. He likes his bartending job, he has a baby, and he’s embraced his combination of overeducation and underemployment. Meanwhile, the most prominent member of our quartet is on the verge of heading to Prague to reunite with his girlfriend, turning a pseudo-intellectual knowledge of Prague through Kundera and Kafka into lived experience. These two may have found potential ways to survive the quarterlife crisis, though Baumbach wisely leaves some inherent ambiguity.
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Frances Ha (2012)
Skip forward almost twenty years, and Noah Baumbach, no longer a 25-year-old quarterlifer himself, still has a fascination with it. Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is twenty-seven years old, pushing the post-college crisis to its limits because she is actually trying to have a career as a dancer, but failing. In this case, the quarterlife crisis is complicated by the desire for an artistic career for which she’s just not good enough. We’re used to seeing stories about struggling actors/singers/dancers who eventually get their big break and come out on top (“you’re going out there a youngster, but you’re coming back a star!”). This isn’t that kind of movie.
Frances is also facing the difficulty of having friends move on with their lives while she’s merely treading water. Her best friend and roommate Sophie moves to a trendier neighborhood that Frances can’t afford, leaving her to find another living situation (not easy for a struggling performing artist in New York City). She trundles between a place in Chinatown shared by two acquaintances, her parents’ home in suburban San Francisco, a summer job near her alma mater Vasser, and a disappointing trip to Paris, alone. I know a lot of people who failed to connect with Frances, because there’s a strong element of First World Problems here. Her family in San Francisco is comfortably well-off, and she went to freaking Vasser, so she’s got resources to call on. Even though she complains about money a lot, though, the real crux of her crisis to me is that feeling of being left behind while your friends move on, as well as a cringe-inducing social awkwardness that feels all too familiar. When I was twenty-seven, most of my friends were getting married, having kids, moving up in their careers. I was graduating from grad school with no prospects of any of that, and STILL no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
Despite all her shortcomings, Frances has an infectious joy and optimism, and watching the ending of the film from my current vantage point (that is, with a husband, a child, and a solid career – all of which I attained around age 30) was tremendously hopeful and in a quiet way, even jubilant. I had come through my quarterlife crisis, and so does Frances, in a much less ambiguous way than either of the other two films. It takes some of us longer than others to figure out what we want and what we’re good at, and to meet the right people to share it with. That’s something I wish my 33-year-old self could’ve told my 23-year-old self. But I wouldn’t have believed it anyway.
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