What We Talk About When We Talk About Being Young

In Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, which I watched on a rainy afternoon in DC, a childless forty-something couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) befriends a twenty-something couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Identity crisis as well as confrontation of social pressure and expectation ensue. At first, the older couple feels inspired and revitalized by the boundless energy and free-wheeling lifestyle of the youths. But after a certain point, they come to realize that there is a limit to the things that they can do at their age (or are they just succumbing to the conventions of society...), ranging from the superficial (wearing fedoras and brogues unironically) to the practical (embarking on spontaneous trips) and the biological (having children).

Meanwhile, the younger couple embraces everything that previous generations eschewed in favor of new technology (e.g. vinyl records, VHS tapes). They're fun and seemingly free from the responsibilities expectations that befall their elders, but they also have no money, ever. And yet they have a chic industrial loft in Brooklyn. (It becomes a running joke that whenever the twenty-somethings go out with the forty-somethings, the former never even attempts a courtesy reach for the wallet, instead leaving the latter to foot the bill).  

The juxtaposition of two couples' everyday lives and the unfurling of their friendship is masterful but then, of course, everything gets derailed. Stiller's character becomes convinced that Driver's is out to destroy him. Their ideological differences fissure and threaten what was once a promising mentor-mentee relationship, for those who grew up in the age of the internet regard everything as public property, good for the remixing and appropriating. To them, truth is mutable and malleable. Stiller's character cannot abide by that mentality, and for that he appears obsolete. And because both male characters are documentary filmmakers, authenticity, veracity and verisimilitude all figure heavily into the story.

Youth has luck, blind ambition and the power of reinvention on its side. And, ultimately, that's what the older couple misses - not the actual packing up and moving somewhere on a whim or doing hallucinogenic drugs, but rather the possibility of being reckless; of having the option to make decisions that lead to drastic changes while being at a point in life where the consequences are negligible. In other words, being able to fuck up and know that things will still be okay, and to not be held accountable by the world at large; to truly live in the moment with little to no regard for the future.

The film resonated with me not only because I identified with the younger couple (and on a deeper level than just having a penchant for old and vintage things), but also that the friends I visited on my east coast trip were, in their own way, trying to navigate the same issues as the characters. 

"I'm glad I got to enjoy part of my 20s," said a friend who, after taking a few years off after undergrad, is heading to medical school this fall.  

"Everything I'm doing right now is the result of a decision I made when I was 18; when I was too young to make it," said another, currently a second year med student. 

They are wondering whether if by shouldering one responsibility they are sacrificing some part of themselves that they won't be able to get back. Not time, per se, but rather the perception that they are missing out on whatever it is that most other people their age are currently doing, and will do while they're still in school and, later, in residency. It's like youth is merely the illusion of a great long hallway with infinite doors of opportunity that, as the years pass, are more often closed than open.

The year that I graduated, 2012, an essay entitled "The Opposite of Loneliness" was making the rounds on the internet. It wasn't just that it was an impeccable piece of writing that beautifully articulated how it felt to be leaving the place you'd called home for the past four years, but also its author had tragically passed away not long after publication.

...let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old... ...We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay.

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
— Marina Keegan, "The Opposite of Loneliness"


The fear. The pressure. The sensation of being stuck on a pre-determined track. While We're Young suggests that they never really go away, but that there is a solution. Both the film and the essay encourage seeking comfort in those around you. For Ben Stiller's character, it's his wife. For Keegan, it's her classmates.

We're twenty-four years old. We have friendships that have withstood cross-country moves and bad wi-fi connections. The best is yet to come.