Demographers most often give a starting date of 1982 or 1983 for the first births in the Millennial cohort, or Generation Y. So the oldest of us Millennials are turning 30 right about now, on the cusp of true (arguably delayed) adulthood. That means we’re just beginning to define ourselves as a generation, increasingly asserting ourselves with strong voices in literature, politics, music, and other meaning-making industries. Here, in chronological order, are the 10 American films that best capture the Millennial experience to date:
Look Who’s Talking (1989)
This generation, thrown into the whirlwind of postmodernity, was born cracking wise. Mikey the newborn (voiced by Bruce Willis) is the child of a single mother, an accountant who’s seduced by a married “master of the universe” executive slimeball type for whom she’s working. (Don’t worry; this being a romantic comedy, she does find Mr. Right by the time the credits roll.) Miniature Millennial Mikey’s sardonic edge masks his infantile vulnerability: his first words are “Put me back in! Put me back in!” Later that same day, he reflects, “This has got to be the weirdest day of my life. Well, so far.”
Home Alone (1990)
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, the late John Hughes had crystallized the self-image of a young Generation X with teen movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Hughes wrote, but did not direct, this Christmas megahit (still the highest-grossing comedy of all time) starring Macaulay Culkin as an 8-year-old left behind by his Paris-bound family. Besieged by a pair of bungling burglars, Kevin McAllister musters all the resourcefulness he can to defeat them. The film reads alternately as a dramatization of latchkey-child abandonment anxieties and/or a fantasy of liberation and empowerment.
The Lion King (1994)
In this Hamlet on the savannah, young Simba is raised amid constant assurance that he’s poised to inherit a prosperous, thriving kingdom. After recuperating from childhood trauma by way of adolescent slackerdom, he’s ready to claim his birthright. Unfortunately, by that point, everything’s completely screwed. A corrupt, militaristic administration has come to power under questionable circumstances, and proceeded to squander the surplus they inherited, tanking the economy. Any resemblance to real people or events is pure prophecy and Disney magic.
Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Harmony Korine turned his hometown into the creepy fictional hamlet of Xenia, Ohio, where an ensemble cast of juveniles, skateboarders, skinheads, the developmentally disabled, child molesters, and a character named Bunny Boy amble through various disturbing, nonlinear narrative fragments in the aftermath of a devastating tornado. Korine, who allowed his actors to take crack-smoking breaks and previously wrote the controversial Kids, is not a filmmaker whose works are easy to stomach, but Gummo is perhaps his strongest work, possessing an undeniable and unique power, and offering a valuable glimpse into the dark subconscious of the Millennial mind.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola may be a Gen Xer, but this story of a complicated romance in Japan between an alienated middle-aged expat actor (Bill Murray) and a meandering Millennial just out of college (Scarlett Johansson) beautifully captures the aimlessness and confusion of this generation of young adults. It’s also a better movie overall than Garden State, which we would have otherwise had on this list. However, so many cute, impeccably soundtracked indie films about the wacky existential crises of 20-somethings have been churned out, we feared an ennui overdose.
Backtracking to high school for a moment, this coming-of-age story is another quirky tale of arrested development, but it’s worth singling out. Based on Walter Kirn’s novel of the same title, this movie chronicles a 17-year-old boy’s struggle with the titular habit, and the spiritual, sexual, and (both prescribed and illicit) narcotic substitutes with which he attempts to replace it. Director Mike Mills, who started out as a graffiti artist and music video director, is married to artist/writer/filmmaker Miranda July, whose Me and You and Everyone We Know is also worthy of a place on this list.
Knocked Up (2007)
Having come full circle from our first entry, the Millennial archetype himself now faces the crisis of parenthood, when things get real, and endless adolescence can no longer be indulged. Seth Rogen’s character is jolted out of his pot-smoking Peter Pan existence, but rises to the occasion. Of all Judd Apatow’s hit comedies, this one perhaps best replicates the perfect mixture of uproarious humor and real feeling that his TV cult classic Freaks and Geeks attained.
If Knocked Up signaled it was time to “put away childish things,” Restrepo is a good reminder that for many, the frivolity had ended long before. The first wave of Millennials had just turned 18 when America was attacked on 9/11. This documentary by Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and War, sees him embedded with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The stakes of movies that chronicle the neuroses of homefront hipsters seem low indeed, compared to this powerful look at fellow Millennials who must take human lives and lose some of their own best buddies to the Taliban.
Tiny Furniture (2010)
And on that last note, “Aura Would Like You To Know That She’s Having A Very, Very Hard Time.” That’s the tagline of this first feature from actress/writer/director Lena Dunham, who went on to create the HBO series Girls, as well as a recent campaign ad for Barack Obama that compared voting for the first time to losing one’s virginity. Tiny Furniture would be eminently hateable (synopsis: film student moves into her parents’ TriBeCa loft and struggles to “find herself”) if it weren’t for Dunham’s genuine talent and close attention to character; her picture won best narrative feature at South by Southwest.
The Social Network (2010)
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include this story of the Harvard student who built a 40-billion-dollar (and falling) empire that embodied everything both great and awful about the Millennial Generation. Ballyhooed as the 21st-century Citizen Kane, Mark Zuckerberg’s unwanted biopic may not have risen to the Olympian heights of William Randolph Hearst’s, but David Fincher’s direction, Trent Reznor’s score, and Aaron Sorkin’s writing are all excellent, and the film’s energy, seriousness, and ambition mirror and dissect those traits in its subject. That this movie wants so badly to be an important statement about its times is itself notable, and makes it perfect for our list.