[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Stream This,” our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new recommendation every week.]
Not all that long into Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach‘s wise and witty debut feature, Grover (Josh Hamilton), a recent college graduate, is trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license. He argues with the bouncer that he clearly looks over 21, and the bouncer answers that he must have ID. This would register as a totally benign exchange, save for the fact that the bouncer pronounces ID as if it were the id. In that moment, Baumbach, who wrote the script as well, encapsulates a hard truth about adulthood: age and the appearance of age is no sign whatsoever of wisdom or knowledge of self. Rather, it’s when people begin learning when to trust their instincts (and when to ignore them) that something like genuine enlightenment settles in.
That might sound a bit heavy for what is, ostensibly, a college comedy, but Baumbach pulls from his own college days — he attended Vassar — to weave his ideas about growing up and becoming an adult into distinctly detailed yet ostensibly universal experiences. The settings are dorm rooms, the quad, bars, off-campus apartments, parties, and coffee shops, where Grover, Otis (Carlos Jacott), Max (Chris Eigeman), and Skippy (Jason Wiles) mull over jokes, pop culture, history, music, film, and, of course, relationships. In fact, what most of their talk boils down to is cultural analysis and self-analysis, and Baumbach suggests that though college has given these young men intelligence and the ability to critique, these gifts also make them deeply fearful of change and sometimes outright incapable of taking chances. When Grover’s father (Elliott Gould) offers his son a place to stay in New York City and a possible internship at The New Yorker, Grover is initially interested, but later on, he can’t even return a phone call regarding these things, at least partially because he’s considering going to Prague.
Prague is beautiful and all, but that’s not what draws Grover out of country. Rather, it’s his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo), who suddenly decided to move to Prague for a major opportunity to work on her writing. Indeed, the women of Kicking and Screaming are characterized as a kind of corrective to the men’s near-chronic hesitancy, though safety is not always of primary concern when the women do go with their guts. Max begins dating a teenager about halfway through the movie, and in one scene, she picks a fight with a motorist while Max cowers in the front seat, noticing the driver’s “I’d Rather Be Bow Hunting” bumper sticker. Before that, Skippy’s girlfriend, Miami (Parker Posey), decides to randomly sleep with Max, a decision that leads to her overdue break-up with Wiles’s character, who has gone as far as to re-enroll in college to avoid deciding what’s next. Baumbach’s women take action, even when the end results are displeasing, painful, or even genuinely irresponsible, which the writer-director suggests is crucial to being a functioning, responsible adult.
It’s unclear whether or not “adult” is the correct term for Chet (Eric Stoltz), Grover and Co.’s favored local bartender, who enrolled in classes for several years following his graduation, but for no particular reason other than to learn. Late in the film, Chet has a discussion with Grover about how one chooses what to do with their life, and its a revealing exchange. As Chet explains, he just kept on taking classes until he realized he was a professional student, living a modest life off of what he makes as a bartender; he also fathered a child with one of his professors. If Stoltz’s character does seem a bit romanticized as the poor yet brilliant bartender-sage, Baumbach is clear to also make his intelligence largely meaningless to anyone but himself; he’s fond of saying “I’m paraphrasing myself.” What his intellect and hunger for culture give him is an active inner life and a hunger for new perspectives, and his job is simply a way for him to support himself as he continues to explore. He’s happy and comfortable behind the bar, whereas Grover and his friends aren’t really comfortable or happy anywhere.
While seeing off a friend at the airport, Grover sees something that, for a moment, convinces him that it’s fate for him to buy a ticket to Prague. But when an airline representative takes the wistfulness out of his action, he bucks and decides against it. As a creative writing and literature major, Grover knows storytelling, and is attracted to scenarios that he’s found in books, but once the magic and the cleverness of the act has dissipated, once its no longer a witty story, he gets uninterested. Ultimately, Kicking and Screaming is a cautionary tale for young artists to not seek out experiences that made you interested in other artists, but rather to use your perspective and creative license to describe your own experiences. To put it another way, paraphrase yourself.
Kicking and Screaming is currently available for streaming on Netflix.