November 16, 2023
WRITTEN BY: KATIE
When thinking of films that define a generation - those that encapsulate the experience of being a young person at a specific moment in time - Rebel Without a Cause (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1955), The Breakfast Club (dir. John Hughes, 1985), American Pie (dir. David Lawrence, 1999), and Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola, 2007) are often the first that come to mind. These films are united by common tropes and themes, like nerds vs. popular kids, cliques, mean girls, pushy parents, first sexual experiences, drinking, and partying.
But what about films that reflect the experiences of young people today? The films mentioned above didn’t have to deal with the omnipresent nature of our phones and social media, or the unique political circumstances of today, which are now staples in the lives of Gen Zers, loosely defined as those born after 1996 and before 2012.
The films that follow, in my opinion, are some of Hollywood’s best examples of demonstrating an understanding of the lives and experiences of people belonging to Gen Z. They achieve this by subverting established genre tropes, stereotypes, and character archetypes, all while exploring the complicated nature of relationships in the age of the internet and social media. They speak to our reality where people have never been so connected and so divided, so accepting yet so quick to judge and cancel.
So, let’s explore some of the most relatable Gen Z films.
BODIES BODIES BODIES (2022)
Although a tad exaggerated at times, Halina Reijn’s horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies critiques the disconnectedness and narcissistic traits associated with Gen Z through its subversion of horror tropes, especially the ‘whodunnit’ element of the slasher genre.
The film follows a group of unbearable twentysomethings who assemble for a mansion party on the night of a raging storm. After a few drinks, they decide to play a murder-in-the-dark style game called “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” Things quickly disintegrate after the power goes out and a throat is slashed, at which point grudges and resentments within the group quickly arise, amplified by the loss of Wi-Fi.
Without their phones, the group is forced to interact with their friends unmediated by the distance provided by social media and screens. It turns out that after keeping in touch almost exclusively via their Instagram feeds and group chats, they don’t know each other as well as they thought. Terrified by the prospect of a killer amongst them, they begin to question each other's authenticity and attack each other's character as viscously as they would a stranger online, throwing around terms like “gaslight” and “toxic.” In a brilliant twist, it’s revealed that the killer isn't quite the masked murderer they imagined, and their narcissism and distrust of each other had a much more significant role to play.
The film subverts the audience's expectations to effectively make its point about the role that technology plays in the lives of a generation who don’t know life without it. It shows the performative nature of online personas and the pressure individuals feel to maintain them, which creates the sense of disconnectedness so prevalent in Gen Z.
The film also utilises phones in a way that looks incredibly natural, with the characters’ phone screens and flashlight apps providing most of the lighting after the power outage despite there being many actual flashlights available, realistically showing how our phones now feel like an extension of ourselves.
Above all, it’s so fun, full of hilarious performances, and has one of my favourite ever line deliveries: “Your parents… are upper… middle… class.”
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart was quickly labelled as the “female Superbad” since both films focus on a pair of slightly nerdy high school best friends who want to party before graduating and embarking on college life separately, not to mention the fact that Beanie Feldstein, who plays Molly, happens to be Jonah Hill’s sister.
The film follows Molly and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). They’re not very popular and are a little socially awkward, having prioritised their studies over partying and having fun. After hearing the cool kids mocking her personality (not her looks, importantly) behind her back, Molly retorts by boasting about her acceptance to Yale University. However, she is horrified to learn that they also have prestigious colleges or jobs lined up, which forces her to realise that it was possible to have fun and succeed in school. Feeling like they’ve wasted their time, the pair try to live the party life they missed all in one night.
Booksmart subverts the tropes of the teen comedy in various ways, but most interestingly through the way it flips character tropes on their head. Unlike previous teen films that rely on the tried-and-tested archetypes of the bullies, the nerds, the jocks, and the cool girl, Booksmart calls out the judgemental attitude of Molly and gives us multifaceted characters that can't be defined by simple labels or binaries. The cool kids are just as smart as the nerds, the jocks are revealed to be more than meets the eye, the bully is redeemed, and the girl with a reputation reclaims the names everyone calls her.
The film speaks to the increasing acceptance of diverse expressions of gender and sexuality and the rejection of labels, a mindset especially associated with Gen Z, as well as presenting a fresh and modern approach to teen comedy through its focus on a realistic female friendship. The LGBTQ+ representation in the film is diverse and totally effortless too, effectively exploring the identities of all its characters equally and avoiding tokenising their experiences, mirroring the typical high school experience of today. The film also acknowledges the ubiquitousness of academic success amongst Gen Z, highlighting that simply working hard in school and getting into a great university will not necessarily bring happiness like it once may have, especially if it comes with neglecting meaningful connections and having fun.
EIGHTH GRADE (2018)
Another directorial debut, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a heart-touching portrait of the hyper-online culture that young Gen Zers have been forced to live in. It follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an anxious 13-year-old girl, navigating her last week in the eighth grade. Kayla doesn’t really have any friends, and she is voted as the “most quiet” in her grade. She looks and sounds exactly like a typical 13-year-old girl would, filled with awkward energy and talking in a clumsy speech pattern full of “um” and “like.” However, she also frequently creates self-improvement videos focusing on “being confident” and “being yourself” for her YouTube channel, confiding in her camera more than she does anyone around her.
In terms of the coming-of-age genre, Eighth Grade is unique. It’s one of few films I’ve seen that attempts to capture the tween years of a Gen Zer, and the only one that does so successfully. It doesn’t have any dramatic moments of realisation or grand gestures, but focuses more on Kayla’s internal experiences, specifically her struggle to grapple with the pressures and performative nature of social media in the face of her social anxiety. Burnham approaches her struggles free of any sense of judgment, and, unlike other teen media, doesn’t look down on the significant role that social media plays in her life. Instead, he empathises with Kayla.
The film creates distance between Kayla and her father, stressing their difficulty in communicating and connecting, which highlights the terrifying reality that the adults in her life cannot fathom what it is like to grow up as a digital native. The parents of Gen Z cannot understand their kids’ unique forms of communication, the online world that is second nature to them, or why they care about their phones so much. They think they’re always talking to their friends despite the fact that, like Kayla, most tweens feel lonelier than ever.
Overall, Eighth Grade is one of the most authentic portrayals of what it's like to live your teenage years through a screen. Despite showing the darker side of the internet age, it's also incredibly uplifting, personal, funny, and almost unbearably relatable.
NOT OKAY (2022)
Of all the films discussed, Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay (2022) is the most direct critique of our relationships with social media, specifically concepts of performative activism and virtue signaling.
It follows Danni (Zoey Deutch), a photo editor for a successful online magazine and aspiring writer. Danni is struggling to attain the job she wants, and she isn't very good at making friends. She’s privileged, spoiled, attention-seeking, and desperate to be noticed. To gain the attention of her peers and office crush, she pretends to attend a writing retreat in Paris, posting photoshopped snaps of her eating croissants and visiting landmarks. Everything seems to be going well until news hits of a terrorist attack at a location she was supposedly at just moments before. Instead of coming clean, she quickly becomes accustomed to the sympathy and attention she receives as a result of her victim status.
Danni eventually befriends an actual survivor who lived through a real attack, Rowan (Mia Isaac), who represents the fact that many members of Gen Z can't afford to not be politically engaged, highlighting Danni’s less than honest intentions. With Rowan’s help, Danni reaches the fame and recognition she always wanted.
Eventually, though, Danni is “cancelled.” However, despite the fact that the film self-consciously presents her as an unlikeable female character, it still empathises with her desperation for validation and acknowledgment. In this sense, the film criticises not Danni or Gen Zers specifically, but the online culture that has convinced them to equate likes and comments with happiness. It also explores what it means to be “cancelled” without passing any definitive judgements.
Lastly, this film feels very representative of a specific era of TikTok in 2020/2021. Danni’s outfits were very trendy in that timeframe, to the extent of being cringe, featuring looks consisting of bleached hair streaks and plastic-beaded jewelry. Although only released last year, the fashion already feels dated, which underscores the difficulty of keeping up with trends and maintaining an online persona when what's considered “cool” or “cringe” is always changing.
Photo Credits: Photo 1, 3 - A24; Photo 2 - United Artists Releasing; Photo 3 - Searchlight Pictures