Here’s a Hollywood math problem for you: Feature filmmaking as we know it is well over 100 years old. Members of Generation Z, defined by Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012, are now between 10 and 25. How long will it take the entertainment industry to bridge the gap?
For a number of summer movies, the answer isn’t just “not long” — it’s “now.” “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” directed by Halina Reijn from a screenplay by Sarah DeLappe; “Sharp Stick,” written and directed by Lena Dunham; and “Not Okay,” written and directed by Quinn Shephard, are all part of a spate of recent films to grapple with how the medium can engage a generation versed in a new visual language and culture. Their 20-something, predominantly female characters are defined to a significant extent by the way they define themselves online, a mix of jokey memes, earnest questioning, engaged activism, real horniness, performative fakeness and the actual search for an authentic sense of self.
‘Wi-Fi is our oxygen’
In “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” based on a story by viral “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, a group of mostly wealthy, mostly college-age friends meet at one’s family estate to party hard during an impending storm. They decide to play the game that gives the film its title — a variation on “Mafia” or “Werewolf” in which players try to deduce who among them is hiding information — when the power goes out and people start to die actual violent deaths, one by one. The friends turn on each other, and the film becomes a biting satire on class and privilege, all mediated by new technology, the language of progressive politics and youth culture, and Gen Z identity itself.
“This is just the best age group to examine human behavior,” said Reijn, who as an actress was a longtime collaborator with the celebrated theater director Ivo van Hove. “When the power goes out and the Wi-Fi goes out, they change. The animal comes out. It’s like the Wi-Fi is our oxygen. Wi-Fi out, demons in.
“They have so much information in their hand. Literally in their hand, and that makes you feel like they know everything,” Reijn, 46, continued. “My characters are almost intellectual bullies, but a lot of the words they’re using, they haven’t lived. They say ‘trigger’ and ‘anxiety’ and ‘ableist’ and ‘body dysmorphia’ and ‘mental illness.’ They have all these things in their mind, but have they actually experienced them?”
Dunham launched to fame in no small part by exploring her own life as a 20-something and the lives of those around her with her breakthrough feature “Tiny Furniture” and the HBO series “Girls,” for which she was nominated for eight Emmy Awards . “Sharp Stick” is the first feature film Dunham has directed in more than 10 years, meaning she now has some distance between herself and some of the characters she is depicting onscreen.
“Instead of documenting my friends, it feels like I’m like 100, trying to do sociological research,” said Dunham, who at 36 is squarely of the millennial generation. “A lot of the movie did come out of the fact that during the height of the pandemic, I discovered TikTok and was spending an enormous amount of time watching this incredible plethora of young people find this new way to express their voice. And I am both in awe of it and so glad that I didn’t have access to it when I myself was that age.”
“Sharp Stick” follows Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old virgin living with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister Treina (Taylour Paige). Dunham plays Heather, a pregnant 30-something struggling to hold her life together in the face of her husband Josh’s serial philandering. After Josh (Jon Bernthal) has an affair with Sarah Jo, caregiver to their special needs son, Sarah Jo sets off on a journey of self-discovery by having sex with men she meets on the internet.
“There’s so much that I love about it and so much I don’t understand about it,” Dunham said of exploring online culture again. (Dunham, who does not control her public social media accounts, created a secret TikTok account during the pandemic — the first time in a while she had actively used social media.) at it from a place where I wasn’t like the old granny saying, ‘The internet’s ruining everything!’ whether it’s TikTok or the way that people engage with porn and sex online. I wanted to do it from a place that wasn’t a judgmental parody but was instead just sort of meeting these people where they are and understanding what could be important to them and their self-expression about using those tools.”
Of the three films, “Not Okay” is the most direct satire of contemporary online culture, starring Zoey Deutch as Danni Sanders, a photo editor for an online publication who longs to be a writer. In part to boost her online following and in part to impress a co-worker (Dylan O’Brien), she fakes a trip to Paris — where a real-life bombing incident rocks the city and leaves Danni to be falsely hailed as a brave survivor. She strikes up a friendship with Rowan (Mia Isaac), who survived a school shooting and has become an advocate to stop gun violence, but Danni’s lies soon begin to unravel.
“Not Okay” begins with a tongue-in-cheek content warning advising that the film contains “an unlikeable female protagonist,” and sprinkled throughout the film are real-life internet personalities such as Caroline Calloway, Reece Feldman, Rocco Botte and Bestdressed. Shephard also makes a cameo appearance as part of an online shaming support group. (There’s a joke about Lena Dunham too.)
“Something I found really heartening about the people that we worked with for cameos was that they immediately understood that the film was satirizing a culture and not specifically criticszing them,” said Shephard. “While it is obviously very critical of internet culture, it’s not intended to be like, ‘It’s influencers’ fault’ or ‘Throw your phone in the ocean,’ because the internet is a part of our reality now. And I really tried to paint all sides of how it can be used for the best and the worst behavior in all of us.”
Both Shephard and Deutch are 27, on the millennial/Gen-Z cusp, and Deutch noted her deeply felt relationship to online culture and its impact on her own personality.
“I do not remember my life before I existed online, which is such a kind of creepy sentence when you hear it at first. But it’s the truth,” Deutch said.
‘The phones are here. They’re not going anywhere.’
The films all home in on this distinction between a presentational online persona and the actual self. The gulf between the two can be difficult to navigate.
“We get asked a lot on this press tour for ‘Bodies’ if we spend less time on our phones after working on this film,” said Amandla Stenberg, already a showbiz vet at 23. “And that’s really not what it’s about, because the phones are here. They’re not going anywhere.
“We have to figure out how to engage with social media responsibly, how to engage with it in a way that maintains humanity. The thing about these algorithms is they can so easily become echo chambers for the worst parts of ourselves. And it actually takes us, as a collective, to be the antithesis to that, to … the AI that is shaping our world now, taking our biases and our insecurities and regurgitating it and feeding it back to us.”
“Sharp Stick” uses a different gambit to illustrate the contrast between “real” and “mediated.” As the film opens, glamorous images of actress Taylour Paige fill the screen, dancing seductively as a delightfully lascivious rap song plays. Then there is an abrupt cut to the vertical aspect ratio of filming on a phone as Paige moves awkwardly, trying to emulate a TikTok dance, and the illusion is shattered.
“What’s interesting to me is the distinction between the kind of glamorous cinema fantasy and this kind of iPhone reality,” Dunham said. “But also life is more beautiful than anything that we can see on an iPhone. That beginning is what Taylor looks like to me dancing. If I’m in a room with Taylor and she’s dancing, it feels that magical.
“The idea of being an influencer wasn’t really even a career opportunity that existed to people my age, when I was that age,” Dunham continued. “That you can kind of make a career out of being yourself, but also not really yourself, was compelling to me, because clearly I was doing a version of it. I just didn’t know that at the time.”
‘It just series of inauthenticity’
It’s of course not unusual for a generation to be skeptical, even adversarial, regarding those coming up behind them. The prospect of an end to job security, political power and cultural influence is enough to make anyone anxious. But there’s something about the way the combined fears of Boomers, Gen Xers and millennials collectively land on Gen Z that feels especially weighty.
“The older generations… might be afraid that we don’t even understand what the culture is. We want to learn it, but we don’t really feel it. And they live it. They think differently about male, female, they have a whole new way of looking at the world. They are very aware of climate change and all those sensitivities,” said Reijn. “We wanted to be self-deprecating and full of humor, even though it’s also very important. And the movie itself is inclusive. Of course, at the same time, we’re also making fun of that because they look like they’re so giving and caring about others, but in the end, [those concerns] are also used in a narcissistic way.”
“Whatever the youngest group of working people are doing has a sort of threatening component to it, like it’s gonna wipe out everything that came before it. And I think we’ve learned that elder Hollywood can’t be wiped out by anything,” said Dunham. “I tend to just love the bravery and the guilelessness that comes with being young. So much of what I did as a young person, I couldn’t have done if I’d had an awareness of how older people were looking at me or us.”
Deutch understands why Gen Z is in turn skeptical of older generations attempting to speak its language, get its references and co-opt its attitudes in order to reach it through media and marketing.
“It just series of inauthenticity when people are trying to impress or understand Gen-Z when they don’t,” she said.
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“I really hope with all my heart that young people don’t feel that we’re making fun of them,” said Reijn. “It’s about human nature. In the end, it’s not only about Gen-Z.”
While the filmmakers are all careful to say the audience for their movies is not limited to one generation, they also know who is likely to be their harshest and most public critics. Armed with smartphones and social media, Gen Z will make their displeasure known quickly and clearly if they feel their onscreen depictions are inaccurate.
“If I know anything about Gen Z it’s that they can smell any falsity or any little tiny cheugy thing from a million miles away,” Shephard said. “Honestly, I think my use of the word chuggy is now chuggy. Someone’s going to read this article and be like, ‘That’s last year’s word.’”