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Worth Your Time? Four movies for directionless youth

By Nicholas Cervania, July 2 2021—

In the book, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini, the main character, Craig, describes what he calls a “sixth-life crisis.” He speaks about the overabundance of options and choices that young people are faced with, often leaving them feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision.

“Forget the mid-life crisis […] it’s all about the sixth-life crisis […] First there’s the quarter life crisis. That’s like the characters on Friends — people freaking out that they won’t get married. Before you had to wait until you were twenty to have enough choices of things to do with your life to start getting freaked out. But now there’s so much stuff for you to buy and so many ways you can spend your time and so many specialties that you need to get started on very early in life […] Instead of a quarter-life crisis they’ve got a fifth-life crisis — that’s when you’re eighteen — and a sixth-life crisis — that’s when you’re fourteen. I think that’s what a lot of people have.”

In this article I want to talk about five movies that speak to those having sixth, fifth or quarter-life crises born out of directionlessness — young adults who feel lost, confused or aimless.

The King of Staten Island

(L-R): Photo of Scott (Pete Davidson) and Ray (Bill Burr) // courtesy imdb.

When it comes to directionless youth, Scott Carlin from the semi-autobiographical The King of Staten Island, is the paragon that first comes to mind. 

Scott is a 24-year-old man with low self-esteem and no job. He lives with his mom and has no realistic goals or motivations, spending his days doing drugs with and giving bad tattoos to his other deadbeat friends. At a young age, he lost his father — a firefighter — and hasn’t ever been able to move past it, leaving him in a state of arrested development. Similar to Scott, his mother — played by Marisa Tomei — is also fixated on his father’s death. Because of this, she enables her son’s behaviour and is complacent in letting him spend his days doing absolutely nothing. 

Eventually, Scott’s mom meets a firefighter, Ray, and begins a relationship with him. Scott is apprehensive of this new relationship as he feels his mother is attempting to replace his father. In contrast, Ray tries to grow closer to Scott, while attempting to maintain a healthy relationship with Scott’s mother. As Scott’s mom grows closer with Ray, she begins to move past her late husband’s death and stops coddling Scott. Scott retaliates, attempting to sabotage their relationship, which causes his mom to break up with Ray and kick Scott out of the house. With nowhere left to turn, Scott goes to Ray for a place to stay at the fire station and begins to help around the station, gaining a sense of purpose along the way.

As a whole, this movie has some pretty slow pacing, but this pacing is indicative of Scott as a character. Scott is perfectly complacent with lazing around and letting life pass him by. So, a lot of scenes are pretty drawn out, feeling longer than they need to be. Having grown up with everyone around him enabling his degenerative tendencies, Scott never makes any attempt to spare another person’s feelings. He’s very blunt and people continually tell him throughout the film how his careless actions have negatively influenced the lives of people around him. He expects everyone around him to care for him — and his sister, his mother and his love interest all suffer because they all try to care for Scott when Scott doesn’t even care about himself. 

In the end, Scott and Ray develop a bond. Ray welcomes Scott into his family — the fire department — which leads to Scott welcoming Ray into his family. In doing so, he meets people who knew his father and what he was really like. They tell him stories about how Scott’s father wasn’t the perfect person Scott knew him as, but rather just as immature and reckless as he is. 

Up until this point, Scott had spent his entire life idolizing his father. As such, living up to his father’s legacy was an impossible task, one that seemed insurmountable and senseless to even attempt. Depending on how we see them, our heroes can be inspiring or unnervingly intimidating, and in Scott’s case, it was the latter. 

Learning about his father’s true character humanizes him for Scott. This pushes him into learning that he needs to better himself — not just for his own sake but also for the sake of the people around him.

This is a movie that I’m sure many people growing up in this generation can relate to — it speaks to how our struggles do not define our character. No matter how long you’ve spent being weighed down by your past hardship, it’s never too late to pick yourself up.

Garden State

(L-R): Photo of Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), Sam (Natalie Portman) and Andrew (Zach Braff) // courtesy imdb.

“I’m 26 years old and I’ve spent my whole life waiting for something else to start. Now I realize that this is all there is and I’m going to try to live my life like that.”

Struggling actor Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) lives his day-to-day life in Los Angeles, feeling emotionless and empty. Upon hearing the news of his mother’s passing, he returns home to New Jersey to attend her funeral and reconnects with his old friends in doing so. During his visit home, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric manic pixie dream girl with whom he begins to spend time and eventually falls in love with. It’s revealed that Andrew has been on lithium and other mood stabilizers, as well as antidepressants since the age of 10 — as prescribed to him by his psychiatrist father, to supposedly “curb his anger.” In the end, Andrew decides to reject his father’s diagnosis, forgiving him for binding his emotions in an attempt to protect him and promising to build a better relationship with him. He decides not to return to LA, opting instead to stay in New Jersey so as to not waste any more of his life without Sam.

The idea of doing something unique that hasn’t been done before is a motif that’s repeated throughout the film. Sam tells Andrew that when she feels completely unoriginal she makes a unique noise or does something that no one has ever done before to feel unique again, even if it’s only for a fleeting moment. Andrew also meets a man living in a quarry, employed to keep out intruders, who say he chose to live there because he likes the idea of “doing something that’s completely unique, that’s never been done before,” mirroring Sam’s earlier speech. This inspires Andrew to climb atop a derelict crane and scream into the quarry — the infinite abyss — finally letting out his frustrations.

Ultimately, Garden State is a movie about how an empty-feeling young man reconnects with his humanity by learning how life shouldn’t be taken for granted and by embracing his individuality. It’s a movie about learning to go for it and how we should follow our heart and go after the things that we want because life is often too short.

Good Will Hunting

(L-R): Photo of Sean (Robin Williams) and Will (Matt Damon) // courtesy imdb.

Good Will Hunting is a masterful movie that tells the story of one of films’ most aimless young adults. The movie stars Matt Damon as Will Hunting, a self-taught 20-year-old natural genius from the south-side of Boston, working as a janitor at MIT. 

More than anything else, Will lacks direction, opting to squander his brilliance and spend his days drinking and goofing off with his buddies — who aren’t gifted like he is. Will is completely content with wasting his talents. This comes from his inherent self-destructive nature that stems from the attachment issues he gained from being orphaned at a young age. He hangs out with his other aimless friends simply because he knows they’re loyal to him and he pushes people away before they have a chance to leave him as a defence mechanism.

Soon after his talent is discovered by an MIT professor, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), Will is sent to jail for assaulting a police officer. Lambeau arranges a deal for Will and he is offered a choice of either serving time or working with Lambeau and receiving therapy. Will agrees to work with Lambeau, but mocks his therapists to the point of refusing to work with him, forcing Lambeau to turn to an old friend, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).

Maguire serves as a foil to Will Hunting — someone who has had a similar upbringing and experienced close loss like Will, but without the attachment issues that came with it. Unlike Will, Maguire is open and honest, he isn’t completely guarded and closed off. He manages to see through Will’s facade of false confidence and bluster in a way that the other therapists never bothered to and manages to forge a genuine connection with him.

There are a lot of underlying themes in this movie, but one of the main themes is self-discovery. The truth is, not everyone is gifted and not everyone who’s gifted is good. It takes a balance of giftedness and goodness to accomplish greatness. Lambeau points out that Will has the skills to change the world, comparing him to Jonas Salk or Albert Einstein. In contrast, Maguire counters that without a solid moral foundation, Will’s application of his brilliance could instead bring about catastrophic results, citing the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, as an example. Lambeau wants Will to be a better scholar, but Maguire wants Will to be a better person. In the end, Will decides to pursue a job offer obtained through Lambeau, but not without taking time to first work on bettering himself by, “see[ing] about a girl.”

We all eventually find our purpose in life. It may take more time for others, but we all have one. Once we accept that we are not to blame for the effects of our past trauma and begin to let go of the past, we can begin to move forward towards the future.

Honourable Mentions

  • Lost in Translation
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  • Up in the Air
  • The Giant Mechanical Man

The Graduate

Photo of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson’s leg (Anne Bancroft) // courtesy imdb.

So you’ve finally graduated. Now what?

Having finally completed his undergraduate studies, 20-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns home and finds himself feeling lost. Overwhelmed by all the choices and expectations imposed upon him by the adults surrounding him, he feels as though he’s drowning — symbolized by the several water motifs that follow him throughout the film. He feels disoriented and lost now that he no longer has a set path to walk — which is signified through the lack of lighting in countless scenes. That is until he is approached by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who seduces him into having an affair. 

This sordid affair manages to go over pretty well — that is until Benjamin is pushed by his parents into going on a date with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), who has recently come home from college and who Benjamin falls in love with.

Unfortunately for Benjamin, Elaine finds out about the affair between Benjamin and her mother and breaks things off with him, eventually leaving her hometown for another semester of college. Benjamin follows her and explains his side of the story, leading to the two of them rekindling their relationship. However, when Mr. Robinson finds out about Benjamin’s affair with his wife, he threatens to have Benjamin jailed if he continues to see Elaine and forces Elaine to marry someone else. But in the final moments of her wedding ceremony, Benjamin manages to burst into the church and convince Elaine to run away with him, which they do — a decision they both immediately regret.

Familiarity can often take on many forms, including love and nostalgia, but it doesn’t mean we should take comfort in it and stagnate. Moreover, just because something feels right in the moment doesn’t mean it’s the right choice to make. Mrs. Robinson explains that she was unable to pursue her art degree due to her pregnancy with Elaine and at the end of the film, Elaine and Benjamin now regret their decision to run away together. Were this any other movie, the story would end as soon as Benjamin and Elaine climb aboard the bus and run off into the sunset. However, their initial excitement quickly turns to regret and uncertainty — a chilling illustration that shows the consequences of short-term hedonism. The pursuit of short-term hedonism is not a substitute for long-term happiness. The overindulgence of instant gratification as a solution to directionlessness can often leave us more lost than we were before and can lead to a life of unfulfilled dreams and wasted aspirations.

Despite its release over 50 years ago, with its skillful pacing, profoundly deep messages and an expertly effective — and now classic — soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, The Graduate remains a quintessential coming-of-age story to this day.

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