For those who came of age during World War II, there was the 1946 drama “The Best Years of Our Lives,” while Baby Boomers who came of age in the turbulent 1960s connected with “Easy Rider.” Similarly, Generation X has spawned its own genre of iconic films—mostly made in the 1990s—that capture the Zeitgeist of that group’s coming-of-age years and explore its yearnings and moral contradictions. Here is a selection of those flicks.
“Pump Up the Volume,” 1990:
An introverted high school misfit, portrayed by Christian Slater, lived a secret life as the ribald but erudite DJ of a pirate radio station. But as the New York Times’ review of the Canadian director Allan Moyle’s movie noted, the film really focused upon a major Xer malaise: “what’s a poor younger generation to do when the traditional modes of teen-age rebellion -sex, drugs and radical politics – have already been used up by its elders?” The movie heightens the generational conflict by portraying Boomer sell-outs as the oppressors of then-youthful Xers.
Director Richard Linklater’s film about eccentric Austin denizens who belong to various bizarre subcultures—from a man claiming to be an alien abductee to a woman trying to sell what she claims is a medical-test specimen from Madonna–isn’t specifically about Generation Xers. But it might as well have been, since it so deftly captures the bemused, detached worldview of a generation that thought its predecessors took themselves way too seriously. And the term “slacker,” was the derogatory stereotype of Xers as a low-ambition generation—one that Xers adopted themselves with perverse pride.
“Boyz N’ The Hood,” 1991:
Director John Singleton’s drama about African-American teenagers (portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr., Larry Fishburne, rapper Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut) struggling to reach adulthood in the mean, gang-dominated streets of south-central Los Angeles shows a different side of Generation X. At 20 of the theaters where the movie opened across the nation, beefs between moviegoers erupted in actual gunfire, a particularly scary example of art imitating life.
Director Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy about twentysomethings in Seattle vividly captured the zeitgeist of the Grunge era, down to the flannel shirts, goatees and coffee addiction. It helped that Crowe cast the actual members of Pearl Jam as Citizen Dick, the group led in the film by a would-be rock god portrayed by Matt Dillon.
“Reality Bites,” 1994:
This movie told the stories of four Xers—a directionless former college valedictorian (Winona Ryder), a promiscuous shop clerk (Janeane Garafolo), a striving yuppie (Ben Stiller, who also directed) and a slacker musician (Ethan Hawke)—who were struggling to find a raison d’être at a confusing moment in time. Okay, having to work at the sort of low-status, low-paid gig that author Douglas Coupland called a McJob, or having your documentary film project edited into a vapid reality TV show, wasn’t quite as tragic as the Lost Generation traumatized by World War I in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” But still, the movie captured Xers’ sense of disillusionment and fear of selling out.
Director Kevin Smith’s dark, often perverse comic look at the discontents of a convenience store employee (Brian O’Halloran) nails Xers’ tendency toward irony-drenched, compulsive deconstruction of pop culture. In one scene, for example, Smith’s “Star Wars”-obsessed characters have an extended debate about the ethics of destroying the second Death Star, out of concern that the workers employed by Darth Vader might be killed in the process.
“Before Sunrise,” 1995:
This is another film by “Slacker” director Richard Linklater that deals with Xer themes. Oddly, the late critic Roger Ebert praised the romantic story of two Xers, who meet on a train and spend a night together in Vienna filled with clever conversation and heartfelt confessions, because he saw Jesse (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) being atypical of their generation, “and especially outside its boring insistence upon being bored.” It could be, though, that Linklater simply was trying to shatter that stereotype.
This male Xer coming-of-age story is a fascinating peek into 1990s Lad culture, that long-extinct milieu of twenty-something boy-men who read Maxim and Details, sipped martinis, and strived to be fashionably casual and cool, even as they clung to one another in a group in an effort to avoid committing themselves to Xer women. Stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who also wrote the screenplay, speak in a faux-hip lingo—“You’re so money!” is their mantra—that seems painfully dated today, because it so perfectly captured that period in time.
“Grosse Pointe Blank,” 1997:
This satirical comedy directed by George Armitage stars Xer star John Cusack as a professional hitman in an existential funk—“just one more overworked, stressed-out careerist ,” as New York Times reviewer put it–who decides to go back home to his 10-year high school reunion. While the premise is a bit extreme, the soundtrack’s musical choices—from a Motörhead to to the Pixies—capture the ambiance of a generation that grew up watching MTV, back when it was devoted to videos.
“Prozac Nation,” 2001:
Generation X sometimes has been called the “Medication Generation,” because it was the first generation for which psychiatrists prescribed antidepressants on a wide basis. This drama, directed by Norwegian Erik Skjoldbjaerg from a script based on Xer author Elizabeth Wertzel’s bestselling memoir, got mixed reviews, though Variety praised star Christina Ricci’s performance. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable film for understanding Xers, in that it vividly depicts the chemically-altered existential angst that had a profound impact on so many lives.
Don’t miss Generation X: Truth Be Told Sunday at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.