It is a continuing mark of achievement throughout Noah Baumbach’s career that he is able to craft the most likable of unlikeable characters. The problems of intellectual, white, upper-middle class culturists strikes on paper like the stuff of indie-movie parody, and yet his portrayal of these archetypes seldom becomes eye-rolling. Perhaps unlike other indie dramas Baumbach’s characters are rarely stuck so deep in the kind of philosophical ennui that becomes cringingly self-important in movies like Garden State (2004) or Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011). A handling which has carried over from his previous tragi-comedy Frances Ha (2012) into his latest feature, While We’re Young.
But if Frances Ha celebrated the exuberant aimlessness that comes with youth, then While We’re Young certainly advocates the wisdom which comes with age, though the coming to terms of which is a turbulence of denial and bargaining before finally reaching acceptance. Straight away Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts) are introduced as a couple passing un-dramatically into the realms of middle age, but who’s choice or inability to bear children has segregated them empathetically from their peers. In the opening scene they dangle awkwardly over their friends’ crying child, unable to recite fairy tales properly, demonstrating their indifference to be a part of that lifestyle.
We are then given indication that while their friends have progressed into parenthood, the two have remained stuck in a rut of routine for the last decade. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who’s on-going lengthy, uncompromising project has lasted eight years without completion. The time seems to have passed them by so quickly but now suddenly warrants some dramatic change in their lives which they have been unable to realise. And like any couple facing age their reminiscence evokes a happier time in their youth.
It is this mixture of regret and directionless un-fulfilment that leads the bulk of film’s story. While giving a lecture Josh is befriended by the much younger twenty-something couple of Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), and after several bizarre and trendy double dates the four become close friends. For Josh and Cornelia, this offers a surrogated return to their own youth and rekindled romance whilst dipping a toe into the young hipsters’ lifestyle. Josh speaks of them: “I like how enthusiastic they are about everything.” But as things progress and Jamie’s own ambitions of becoming a documentary filmmaker takes precedence over Josh’s, it becomes questionable to him whether their friendship was only ever a segue to reach Cornelia’s father, a cinéma-vérité documentarian of the old school.
The fact that vérité documentarians of the ilk of Wiseman and the Maysles were once considered the ‘new school’ is one of many illustrations of generational divide within the film, which ultimately seems to fuel Josh and Cornelia’s strive for console in their alienation and aging. And while the coming-of-middle-age drama is subgenre well established in modern filmmaking (This Is 40 , Friends With Kids ), here Baumbach directly contrasts his older characters with their younger counterparts, playing for comedy the hipsters’ preference for retro-analogue dead formats and the older two’s admirably competent adoption of modern digital services. Though they are well adjusted to using Netflix, smartphones and mp3s, connecting with the younger generation causes Josh and Cornelia to revisit all the things they thought were long obsolete. Jamie and Darby’s vinyl collection, VHS tapes, typewriters and preference of memory over search engines links Josh and Cornelia not only to more enthused version of themselves but to a specific era which they perhaps secretly wish to return to.
But this is not without its consequences. Jamie and Darby are so eclectic in their tastes and interests that it is easy to be taken in by their charm and enthusiasm for everything, but the fallout from this is that it is difficult to get a bearing on any of their moral compasses or political ideals (the revealing of Jamie’s dubious documentary ethics is particularly telling of how unknowable they are). They exist in a kind of bricolage limbo, making everything, listening to everything, appropriating adverts long before their time, to the point where their diverse interests are less charmingly extensive and more deceptively intangible. To Josh and Cornelia, getting married was the beginning of the rest of their lives. To Jamie and Darby, it is just another thing that they did.
This divide begins to create problems as it becomes clear throughout the film that Josh and Cornelia are stuck in an arrested state between two milestones: carefree youth and responsible adulthood, not wholly a part of either. Though Cornelia feels suffocated attending a baby dance class with her recent-mother friends, Josh also fails to keep up riding a fixy bike with Jamie without putting his back out. They struggle between an impossibility to revisit the past and an un-enthusiasm to move into the future.
When mid-way through at the point following a ridiculous ayahuasca party the film appears to be setting up a progression of maturity for Josh and Cornelia, though the movement into the final act feels less like a coming-to-terms with age and more of a bitter finger wagging as the adults teach the wiper-snappers a thing or two. What is possibly the weakest point of the film comes at the very end. References are made multiple times throughout that not only are Josh and Cornelia ill-suited to having children but that doing so would be little other than a faint attempt to fix their marriage. Their decision to follow suit of their peers and have a child regardless feels a little like a discounting of the film’s message of finding contentment with age outside of society driven milestone expectations, and instead seems to endorses parenthood as a cure for all ailments in both relationships and egos.