The Ringer declared last summer that the moment of horror is now here: “Millennial” is no longer a synonym for “young person.” The new cohort, dubbed “Gen Z” or “iGen” depending on who you ask, continues to rise after 2018’s generation-defining cry for action that culminated in the March for Our Lives. This year’s Tribeca Film Festival helped usher in a changing of the guard behind the camera as the narrative feature jury awarded the most prizes to Burning Cane, directed by 19-year-old Philip Yeomans. (How is he supposed to stay focused on his finals at NYU now?)
But a generational shift in the way that films portray teens and youth culture is also underway in front of the camera, as shown by five films with Gen Z protagonists across the festival’s bountiful programming. Given the lag time between ideation, production, and distribution, most recent portrayals of this crucial life stage have felt familiar to me as a younger millennial. But now, eight years out of high school, the struggles experienced and conversations held by those who are now in school feel distinct from my own. The change was not only a domestic one, either; a sampling of films from the United States and abroad evince a shrinking window of childhood innocence in which characters can hide from the pressing issues of the day.
This is most obvious in Emily Cohn’s CRSHD, a truly digitally native tale of three college freshmen in the clique simply known as “other.” It’s a rare movie to acknowledge that technology is not just a feature of young people’s lives but often the very thing providing the fodder that drives all discussions. Cohn visualizes apps like Messages and Tinder in a low-rent way that’s scrappy yet effective. She finds corresponding offline analogues for these pixelated spaces and integrates them into a night of mayhem surrounding a crush party. The film’s only major problem is that the narrative never matches the novelty of Cohn’s ideas.
The pressure of an always-on social presence is a global phenomenon, too, as shown in Tal Granit and Sharon Maimon’s Israeli teen drama Flawless. The need for three high school girls to sculpt their bodies perfectly for prom night leads them to a Ukrainian black-market shaman named Keren. In exchange for a kidney — yes, the actual organ — she will provide the girls with the plastic surgery they desire. Later in the film, Granit and Maimon reveal that Keren discovered the girls through one of their vlogs, a haunting example of how opportunistic scammers can prey on the vulnerabilities we share online.
The ability to go under the knife takes on a special urgency for one girl in the group, Eden, who turns up at the school just before the end of the year. Though Eden conceals it from even her inner circle, she’s a trans woman whose father will pay for hormone treatments (because they’re reversible) and protect her by making sacrifices to move the family — but stops short of supporting any serious operation. Eden’s journey towards acceptance of herself and by others, as masterfully portrayed by trans actress Strav Strashko, provides a necessary helping of heart to what would otherwise play as an oppressively dark parable about the dangers of the web.
A similarly grim outlook pervades See You Yesterday, the time-travel adventure that marks the feature directorial debut of Spike Lee’s protégé Stefon Bristol. All signs indicate that a cheeky, fun journey lies ahead when the time machine-creating duo shows up to a science class and the actor playing their teacher is none other than Michael J. Fox. What ultimately ensues is a race against the clock and past versions of themselves to prevent the murder of an unarmed, innocent family member at the hands of a policeman’s bullet.
Bristol never sensationalizes this incident but lets the injustice motivate the film’s urgency. See You Yesterday arrives at a startling yet appropriate conclusion: There are limits on individual action to solve a problem caused by insidious racial biases, no matter how precisely one tries to intervene. The film feels like new, fresh, and welcome ground for the time-travel subgenre; this certainly is not the breezy escapade of Marty McFly.
Similar issues of race, class, and privilege pervade Julius Onah’s Luce, a gripping moral drama that spins a web of intrigue surrounding the mysterious behavior of its eponymous high schooler. None of the film would work without Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s spellbinding performance, which manages to capture both the ambiguities of Luce’s every move and the character’s hyperawareness of the ways in which his identity gets constructed and interpreted. As a star student-athlete whom the principal openly professes a desire to clone, Luce knows his high performance positions him as a classic “model minority” archetype. His history as a former child soldier rescued from an Eritrean war zone and adopted by two well-meaning white liberal parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) certainly helps his biography as well.
But rather than find his position empowering, Luce views it as a straitjacket — and one which he might be trying to wiggle his way out of. His antics arouse suspicion from history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who begins to wonder if Luce’s extensive therapy and rehabilitation might not have fully erased his past. What ensues from her initial probing envelops Luce, his parents, and countless other students, much of it stemming from concerns and suspicions no character would dare say out loud. The complexity of Onah’s moral dilemmas distracts from the relative blandness of his staging, much of it simply long conversations filmed in familiar shot reverse shot patterns. Luce can only work as well as it does, too, because high schoolers are significantly more attuned to the dialogue surrounding their rights, privileges, and intersectional identities than they were at the start of the decade. (And, for that matter, because everyone is attuned to the possibility of unaddressed problems leading to an outburst of violence.)
This mindfulness of cultural issues is not a preset disposition hardwired into Gen Z, though. Sebastian Schipper’s Roads demonstrates that for some characters, it’s an ongoing journey. A film that starts out as road trip romp where British teenager Gyllen (Fionn Whitehead) steals his stepfather’s RV in Morocco with the intent of driving it to visit his real father in Europe takes an unexpected detour into weighty territory. Gyllen brings along William (Stéphane Bak) for the journey, at first for the company but then to hopefully reunite him with his brother, a Congolese refugee now living in France. Schipper follows Gyllen and William’s runaway spirit for nearly an hour without ever touching the clear divides of privilege and class between them, though it often glides by on Fionn Whitehead’s charm alone. It’s just such a joy to watch his eyes light up when a fire builds in his belly.
For a while, it’s worrisome that Roads appears to whitewash the differences that have led to significantly different teenage experiences, as if a lot of lawless behavior and one RV hash party is enough to heal the world. But then Schipper does decided to confront it head on … by essentially turning Roads into an entirely different movie, one that sheds light on the plight of refugees in Europe. The joy of William’s eventual reunion with his brother is tempered by the miserable conditions he and other migrants face. Denied proper support by the French government, they have no choice but to live in the country’s shadows. Gyllen, jolted by what he observes, changes his own life trajectory in response to the abject cruelty and neglect. Ham-fisted though the transition from buddy comedy to refugee exposé might be, Roads makes for a moving tribute to the power of brothers, be they lost, found, or created.
It was clear, too, that not all filmmakers at Tribeca got this memo about the changing world for today’s youth. For example, Gully, a Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolent teen revenge story, felt hopelessly retrograde in its outlook. The framing of teenagers’ impulses as akin to videogame play recalls a post-Columbine style moral panic. As shown by the clued-in films, issues of teens acting out are much more complicated — and perhaps even more frightening. Yet for all the anxiety that the rise of a new, unformed generation creates, there’s also hope. And while the world forcing them to get wise so early might shrink their corridor between childhood and adulthood, the rest of the world may stand to benefit.