This article discusses plot points of Benjamin, out in cinemas on Friday, and generalises freely about the lives and habits of young adults in the US and UK.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade – out in the UK in April – won a lot of love over this last awards season, and this week another comedian makes his theatrical feature film debut with a similarly sympathetic skewering of modern life, love, and heavy doses of self-doubt. Simon Amstell’s Benjamin – a semi-autobiographical account of a young filmmaker’s romantic woes – approaches life, career choices, romance, and mental health with a refreshingly empathetic viewpoint. Painfully relatable second-hand embarrassment abounds, as does an overwhelming dread of doing the wrong thing – its relatability sometimes painful and sometimes relieving. Its titular protagonist describes his work, ‘it’s about my inability to love, but I’m fine now’ – a hilarious sentiment delivered with almost complete sincerity. The result is an astute and quietly devastating picture. It seems that the self(ie) obsessed generation has moved into the spotlight, providing the ideal opportunity to look at how these millennial struggles are portrayed on film.
Without generalising millennial filmmakers or their generation (those born between roughly 1980-1996, with Generation Z its younger counterpart) too much, there is a validation in seeing some of the common – perhaps stereotypical, but often relatable – problems of the financial crisis, underemployment, delay of adulthood’s traditional markers, hyperconnectivity, quest for individual distinction, and existential dread on screen. These personal and professional challenges are by no means unique to the millennial experience nor experienced by all young people in the same way, but today’s constant digital connection and search for validation magnifies these trials and panics. These traits are ripe for mockery; however, the voices emerging often choose a softer, kinder path. With such emotional and material challenges facing young adults, outright ridicule feels the lazy choice when a gentler honesty is available.
Benjamin chooses this path through its cutting, but never cruel, look at a young filmmaker’s self-involved sophomore picture, budding romance with a young singer, and friendships struck by crises of confidence. From overthinking morning-after porridge toppings to panicking over words both said or unsaid, the neuroses entertain and horrify in equal measure. Comparisons to Annie Hall spring to mind – the unglamorous metropolitan art scene, self-aware yet self-sabotaging behaviours, and constant staring into the abyss – but do both films a disservice; notably, Benjamin lacks the caustic cynicism of the 1977 hit, closing instead on a hopeful note.
Benjamin and Noah’s romance is presented through clear eyes, jumping between excruciatingly awkward and genuinely adorable moments, avoiding sentimentality but exuding gentleness. The neurotic antics sometime veer towards absurdity, pulled back by the characters’ and situations’ earnestness. Benjamin anchors its time and place through a helping of self-involved metatheatricality – most delightfully when a very recognisable, mostly beloved film critic makes a cameo critiquing Benjamin’s film, which premieres at the London Film Festival as Benjamin did for Amstell. Once again, full commitment to the ridiculousness avoids outright cringe.
The least believable part of Amstell’s fictional filmmaker’s life is the fact that he can live alone, in London, with only a cat and no rent-paying housemates, making a living through filmmaking and royalties instead of scrambling between coffeeshop and retail jobs to finance his dream. This specific millennial flight of fancy may be maddening but making Benjamin’s sexuality a complete nonissue is a modern, refreshing approach. None of the conflict centres around being gay or coming out, instead stemming from good old-fashioned human awkwardness. Lastly, some urgent conversations around male anxiety and mental health adds an additional level of humanity which places the film’s outlook firmly in the 21st century.
The millennial experience is still in full swing, with Gen Z’s first few years graduating university and heading into a redefined – or undefined – adult experience. It is therefore hard to discuss decade-defining films while said decade is in progress, but Benjamin and the four films below may stand out in years to come.
Frances Ha (2013)
Unlike Benjamin, Frances Ha capture the unstable living conditions of a 27-year-old dancer in New York City as she bounces between jobs, cities, living arrangements, and the tolls these take on friendships. Frances’ impulsiveness often leads to irresponsible situations and selfish behaviour, but Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s script tease out the anxieties and confusions underlying the very existence of Frances and her contemporaries. By the film’s end little external progress has been made, but the nuanced exploration of this volatile age in an unstable era leads to a half comforting, half terrifying, fully satisfying conclusion.
What If (2014)
Michael Dowse’s romcom is not only a superb example of the genre but also a heartwarming, angst-inducing picture of the precarity of young adult life. As Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace works odd jobs, lives with his sister, and nurses a crush on a friend, he and the audience watch those in his life progress through the various markers of adulthood at wildly different speeds. Despite others’ serious relationships, international jobs, and pregnancies evoking Wallace’s internal crises, cynicism is never allowed to undercut the whimsy.
The Incredible Jessica James (2017)
Like Frances, the heroine of this 2017 quasi-romcom is caught up in the constant hustle of dream work and day jobs – supporting her playwrighting endeavours with children’s theatre classes. Thrown into the mix is the heady world of online dating and the digital presence of ex-partners. Unlike Frances, however, Jessica’s self-assuredness reflects a less anxious outlook – while romantic and professional stressors abound, her theatrical goals never waver. If Benjamin’s neuroses believably convey many aspects of millennial life, Jessica’s focus and assuredness captures the freedom from forming a career outside the traditional path.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Eighth Grade may focus on a younger subject who does not (yet) have to worry about finding her dream job or paying her own bills, but its adolescent protagonist’s intensely personal stakes and digital connection are affectionately picked to pieces by Burnham’s skilful writing. It is not impossible to imagine that both his and Amstell’s backgrounds in one-man comedy (can Burnham’s acts truly be called standup?) honed a biting insight into the instantly recognisable, all-too-relatable follies of growing up. If today’s young are mocked as the self-obsessed generation, Eighth Grade stands in the corner of the YouTube and Instagram obsessed, deeply empathising with this hunt for validation while harbouring no delusions about its unsustainability.