On-Screen Quarter Life Crises Get a New Lease on Life

In this recent film trend, women on the verge of their thirties breathe new life into an old trope.

by Caitlin Quinlan

Courtesy of MGM, Neon, A24.

In her essay, “The Double Standard of Aging,” Susan Sontag wrote that, for women, “aging is a movable doom. It is a crisis that never exhausts itself, because the anxiety is never really used up.” Writing in the 1970s, Sontag was concerned with the ways women felt the social impact of aging more than men: in sexual viability, expectation of familial roles, and educational and career prospects. These imposed pressures lead to an unrealistic assessment of moving through your twenties and into your thirties as if it were the end of the world. “Twenty-nine,” Sontag wrote, “has become a queasy age ever since the official end of youth crept forward, about a generation ago, to thirty.”

This, perhaps, explains why Alana Kane (Alana Haim), the mid-20s heroine of Licorice Pizza, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s freewheelin’ romp through ’70s Los Angeles, stutters slightly whenever she mentions her age. Is she actually 25 or is that just what she tells people? Or maybe this is why the two Julies—of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part I and Part II and Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, fictional decades apart—undergo deeply personal transformations as they move through third decades fraught with relationship and career crises. Their twenties, early or late, mark a time of great change and panic; approaching the so-called end of youth, these three recent film protagonists represent a new kind of coming-of-age in the movies as they navigate an anxious post-adolescent period that offers new freedoms alongside many of the same old fears. Who am I going to be, they wonder, before I’ve missed my chance?

For these characters, the doom of aging is impending and the time ticking on decisions that an expectant society urges them to make. Alana’s method of figuring-it-out in Licorice Pizza involves leaping from one crazy scheme to the next with newfound friend Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old wannabe entrepreneur who wrangles gigs as a waterbed salesman and pinball arcade manager. There is vibrancy and humor in Anderson’s film, a tale of the jumbled fantasy land that is the San Fernando Valley. But in Alana, we see an unsettling honesty about what it means to be leaving behind the forgiving nature of adolescence and moving into adulthood. She can piggyback on Gary’s projects and entertain his crush on her a little, play-acting at being a few years younger again, but one of the film’s most memorable scenes reflects her exasperation at this game: Having single-handedly guided a broken down truck downhill at night, she sits on the curb, exhausted, while Gary and his friends make crude penis jokes. Does she want to settle back into a youth she’s left behind or find a mature way to move forward? In looking for the latter, she quickly realizes how many of the other “adults” around her are play-acting at something too.

For Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in both parts of Hogg’s The Souvenir, life comes to be defined by one of these so-called adults. Her romance with the drug addicted Anthony, who hides much of his life from her, is all-consuming to the point that Julie can’t be sure who she really is without him. The upcoming Part II explores who Julie is and who she can become in her own right as she grows into her twenties and finishes her film school thesis project after Anthony’s death. As she begins filming her own reenactment of their relationship, she struggles to convey her motivations behind her choices to the actor portraying herself. “You cannot just see that and not talk about it,” the actor suggests, referencing Anthony’s addiction. “Well, that’s how I did it,” Julie whispers firmly, devastatingly, in response. In striving to make sense of her life by making sense of her film, Julie finds herself in the midst of both an artistic and personal crisis. Hogg’s movingly self-referential and metatextual study of her own past reexamines and replays the character’s twenties with tenderness and a keen insight into how a young woman can grow to understand herself with creative clarity.

Despite the differences in era, Licorice Pizza and The Souvenir speak to the same kind of inherently millennial malaise afflicting Julie in the present-day set The Worst Person in the World. All three films explore characters at their own “queasy” ages, figuring out exactly what they want to do and who they want to be. No longer teenagers, but not yet bound by dependents or major life responsibilities, Alana and the two Julies are left to float from one idea to the next to determine their selfhood. It’s hard to ignore the pertinence of the release of these films at a time where both disastrous economic downturn and the Covid-19 pandemic have led commentators to refer to millennials as the “new lost generation” and the “unluckiest generation in U.S. history.” Coupled with the varying pressures for women posed by Sontag which, five decades later, do still linger, this is a period rife for hopeless unease and uncertainty over your path in life.

For these characters, refreshingly, the question is less about whether or not they should get married or have children (although the latter issue does arise briefly in The Worst Person in the World). Their journeys are interior, personal, and individual. Significantly, too, these are all characters afforded the space for contemplation by their relative affluence (especially true of Julie in The Souvenir) and their whiteness, and the many privileges associated with their racial identity. Television has, perhaps, so far been the medium to recently offer more space to women of color, through series such as Insecure, She’s Gotta Have It, High Fidelity, and I May Destroy You.

Yet in film, there has been limited space for women to explore, beyond more typical teenage coming-of-age fare, the challenges of self discovery, issues around the pressures of maturity, the fear of failure, or simply the dynamics between adult female friends. As women on screen get older, the film industry’s relationship to them gets more complicated. Whether confined to the cinematic sidelines as wives or mothers, hemmed in by romantic genre conceits of needing to find “the one,” or left out of films altogether, women have been caught in a cycle of poor representation and unfairly encouraged stereotypes.

The filmmakers who did break through such conceits in the U.S. from the 1970s to the 1990s—the likes of Claudia Weill (Girlfriends), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), and Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey), to name a few—made brilliant films about women in their twenties and thirties living independent lives, but did not receive the kind of acclaim needed to bolster high-profile industry careers. All three, to some extent, have since been reappraised and celebrated as directors in more specialist film circles, and their impact on the kinds of stories about women shown on screen is apparent even in this year’s releases.

Perhaps Alana and Julie feel as much like the titular worst person in the world as Joachim Trier’s Julie (Renate Reinsve) does. This Julie is nearing 30 and has cycled through three or four different career options and as many haircuts in the film’s opening 10 minutes. Her indecisiveness and changing desires hurt people, particularly the two men she dates; love is easy when it’s tangled up in lust and excitement in the opening months of a relationship, but then it shifts into something more grounded, more permanent. At these moments, all Julie wants is to shake off her past self and try something new. The filmmaker’s deft handling of Julie’s fears and uncertainty balances comfort and critique, acknowledging the bind between selfishness and self-care, and independence and unreliability, that marks people in the midst of change. But it also contributes to a film that gets at the core of what all three characters ultimately come to realise—that there is always another job, another person, another step to take to get where you need to be.

It is telling that all three films include scenes of their protagonists running with intensity and fervor, cameras close to their determined faces. Running away from the old and into the new; towards new loves, new opportunities, new environments. Fear comes when you stop moving, when you settle into what you’re unsure of, and these are women with the desire to keep going until something fits, learning to pay no attention to the ticking of the clock.