This year at the Oscars, a few love stories crept in to the Best Actress category but never made it to best picture. The Academy nominated both Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole (2010) and Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine (2010), two films that explore the darker sides of love and the process through which we make it work. Blue Valentine represents the “twenty-something” generation and a young couple who has stumbled into parenthood and marriage but who cannot manage to sustain their relationship. In a non-linear plot format, director Derek Cianfrance juxtaposes the magical beginnings of their relationship with their present day dysfunction. It explores the quandary of the “twenty-something” generation. In an effort to redefine the path toward love, family, and adulthood, many “twenty-somethings” are taking the long way round. Robin Marantz Henig asks in a New York Times Magazine article from August, 2010: “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Films such as Blue Valentine, as well as Sam Mendes’s Away We Go (2009), attempt to address this question, or at least, make an effort to show twenty-somethings-into-early-thirty-somethings that they are not alone, but rather, part of a greater phenomenon. Blue Valentine is a depressing example of love gone horribly sour, whereas Away We Go portrays love gone wonderfully right.
Marantz Henig sites the classic critique of the twenty-something: “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary…jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.” It is the search for “greater meaning” or the almost cliché “spiritual journey” that has become increasingly common in popular culture, and among certain pockets of twenty-somethings. Shows like Quarterlife or films like Cédric Klapisch's The Spanish Apartment (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005) document both the crisis and fun of youth. Yet, this phenomenon has also crept into the thirty-something culture. From television shows like Sex and the City to Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, it is commonly accepted that thirty-something is the new twenty-something. In Sex and the City, four single women in their mid-thirties prioritize their careers and New York lifestyles over the traditional marriage and children by your mid-twenties. According to Marantz Henig, the median age at first marriage for the generation of baby boomers in the early 1970s was 21 for women and 23 for men. By 2009, the median age had risen to age 26 for women and 28 for men. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert documents her unhappiness with having chosen to marry young and, consequently, takes us through the process of both the divorce and the spiritual journey of her 30s. Yet the key word here is “choice.” Some women have chosen to prolong these life milestones in lieu of successful careers or self-actualization, while others don’t choose—or rather, might not even have the choice.
Blue Valentine tells the story of two twenty-somethings who have stumbled into their life. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is studying to be a doctor in her rural hometown while Dean (Ryan Gosling) lives in New York City and works as a professional mover. He seems to be lost in life, without the same career ambitions as Cindy, or an idea as to how to meet a girl and fall in love. In a twist of fate, they meet—only to embark on a whimsical love story. When they discover one day that they are pregnant, they decide to dive into adulthood, get married and have the baby. In a non-linear plotline reminiscent of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), where we start at the end and make our way to the blissful beginnings, we slowly discover the youthful innocence that led them to believe that they would be different. They both agree that they don’t want to end up like their parents, but yet their journey follows a similar path. Dean realizes that his only life purpose is to be a father, and Cindy realizes that she needs something more. Needless to say, I found it depressingly awful.
Sam Mendes’s exploration of this phenomenon in Away We Go portrays a more comical perspective on what it means to reach milestones such as marriage and children on an unconventional timeline. We follow Burt Farlander—played by John Krasinski from The Office—and Verona de Tessant—played by Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live fame—as the expecting couple travels across North America in search of “home.” Only a few months before the baby is due, Burt’s parents, the only living grandparents-to-be, surprise them with the news that they are moving to Belgium for two years. Burt and Verona become free agents, as they are suddenly able to make a new life for themselves elsewhere. With their travels, they rekindle old relationships in hopes of finding a new “home.” In the process, they experience different types of families, exploring the many ways to love, to raise children, and to create a family. Yet their journey eventually takes them back to where they came from. In an effort to find somewhere new, they, of course, find themselves. It is hilarious yet touching, and, unlike its dismal counterpart, the film makes you want to believe in love.
As they’re about to embark on their new journey, Verona asks Burt: “Are we f**k-ups?” When Burt asks her what she means, she replies: “I mean, we’re 34 and we don’t even have this basic stuff figured out…Basic, like how to live.” Burt assures her that they are not f**k-ups, but Verona doesn’t seem as convinced. As the rest of us twenty-somethings-into-thirty-somethings wonder the same question, it’s hard not to follow it with a whole other set of questions. Am I on the right path? Am I taking too long to figure it out? Have I achieved my goals? Will this make me happy? Where is my life taking me? Will I end-up where I want to be in the next five to ten years? If you’re lucky, maybe you can answer some of these questions. For everyone else, films like Blue Valentine and Away We Go make you feel a little less like an anomaly. Yet, who’s to say that our parents’ generation didn’t feel the same? It was the youth of the 1970s that first changed the rules, and the subsequent generations are merely living off the benefits. Thanks to the baby boomers, we don’t have to get married before having children—if we decide to have children or get married at all—or stay in one job for our entire lives. Yet to all those who can afford self-actualization over a job that both pays AND makes you happy, Marantz Henig is still somewhat of a skeptic. While she sees the benefits of “trying on” life before settling down, perhaps avoiding the mistake of choosing a partner too young, she also recognizes the economic downsides of children still living at home, parents paying extra bills, and young people not contributing as much to the workforce as they did a generation before. Wherever you may be in your life, I’m pretty sure we’ll always be plagued by these questions—at least, to a certain degree. What makes the difference is the ability to choose our choice, and, in turn, to feel settled in ourselves, wherever we may be.