Skippy: We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?
Max: I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar tonight because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory — and I didn’t have a good time.
The last time I saw Kicking and Screaming — Noah Baumbach’s first time, which I have seen countless times — was with my friend Abby. We were both having minor nervous breakdowns, and I was desperate to watch something that felt safe and familiar.
Abby liked the movie, but when it was done, she said, “That was cool, but like, nothing happened in it.”
I was outraged. “What do you mean, ‘nothing happened?’ Everything happened. Talking, sex, love, breakups, changing jobs, moving to a new city, um, book clubs?! What else is there?”
Abby did, however, have a point. The plot of Kicking and Screaming is minimal, at best. Basically, everyone graduates from college and has no idea what to do next. That’s about it. The film’s inciting incident, if you can call it that, is Jane dumping Grover, our main character, at their graduation party. She won a writing fellowship to go to Prague. As she points out, he probably could have won the same fellowship if he had — you know — actually bothered to apply.
Jane also points out that he could — you know — come to Prague with her. Grover ignores this, scoffing (in the arch, faux-world-weary manner that we will come to know well during this movie): “Prague! You’ll come back a bug!”
But beneath the mock-jadedness, Grover is panicked. He starts gulping down the drink that he has brought over for Jane. “You might want to slow down,” she advises him. “There’s no alcohol in that.”
I love this movie.
As you can maybe tell from the above snippet of dialogue, this movie has more on its mind than the standard college flick. I have the dialogue basically memorized, but I won’t torture you by reciting all of it. Still, the characters joust and parry, joust and parry, trying not to reveal too much of themselves, but inevitably revealing way too much in the process.
Sensing that the situation is hopeless, Jane dumps Grover. He walks away from her and joins his table of friends at the party. They ask him what his plans are, post-graduation. Grove slumps in his chair. His plans are this: “I spend the rest of my life hanging out with you idiots.”
Which is what happens. Grover moves in with his friend Max. One friend, Skippy signs back up for classes, even though he’s already graduated, and another friend, Otis, defers grad school to go work in a video store. They continue going to the same bar they went to in school (run by the ever-kindly, ever-sage Chet, who has embraced the plan of just never graduating from college, and has been writing his thesis for a decade). They go to the same parties that they went to in school. It’s all low-key Myth of Sisyphus. It’s all low-key winding Dantean circles of hell. Except all very funny.
Like Max says at the top, they’re all nostalgic for a past that has only just ended, drawn in by the magnet-tar-pit-trap of stasis. I was in college when I saw this movie for the first time. And I remember, very clearly, already feeling nostalgic for college during sophomore year, when it was still happening. I have the same ism that all the characters in Kicking and Screaming have.
Still, as Grover says at one point, “Despite my best efforts to do nothing — things happen.” They do. Couples cheat on each other. People break up. New romances start. Choices are made, and gradually — oh so gradually — new identities are formed.
This movie gradually came to define the weird choices that I made in my own life. Grover majors in Creative Writing. I switched my major to English, then got an MFA in Creative Writing. Jane moves to Prague. I moved to Prague. Otis wears pajama tops under a suit jacket. I… briefly did that too.
I dunno. Stuff just happens sometimes. You know?
Interspersed with the main action of the film are black-and-white flashbacks of Grover and Jane meeting for the first time. They’re low-key heartbreaking (everything about this movie is low-key), because you know their ending long before they do.
(Spoilers below, so just skip to the comments if you hate spoilers.)
Towards the end of this movie, Grover makes the following speech, to an airline clerk who can’t find him a plane ticket to Prague:
“Just great. This is so frustrating, because I’m terrible at conflict. I hate it. And if I’d imagined this problem while falling asleep one night — I don’t think I would have spoken up to you. Even in my fantasy life I just would have accepted it. That’s who I am. But today, I have to go. I have to. And when I tell people about this in the future, I know that — it’ll be the time that I went. And I know that when I review this whole episode in my head — I’m not gonna know what I did or why I did it…But it’ll make a good story of my young adult life. You know; the time I chose to go to Prague. I’ll look back on it and I won’t believe that I actually went, you know. That I went away. So let me go. I have to. I need — just put me on the plane. …Let me go.”
The clerk types into her computer. She finds him a ticket. Grover grins. Then he remembers — he’s forgotten to bring his passport. He hangs his head.
“You can always go tomorrow,” the clerk says.
Grover grins-slash-winces. “…Yeah,” he says.
But we know from his expression that he never will go tomorrow, meaning that he’ll never see Jane again. But he’ll go somewhere, someday.
It’s all low-key tragic. But that’s what young adult life can be. And that’s what Kicking and Screaming is. A good story of our young adult lives.