“Well I would say I’m just drifting”: Quarter-Life Crisis Films Through the Ages

In one of the more memorable and metaphorical sequences from 1967’s The Graduate, Mr. Braddock (William Daniels)  towers over his recent college-graduate son, Ben (Dustin Hoffman), as he floats aimlessly in his swimming pool, achieving nothing but a sunburn. “Ben, what are you doing?” asks the father; “well, I would say that I’m just drifting,” replies his son, candidly. 

Defined by clinical psychologist Dr Alex Fowke as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding careers, relationships and finances”, the ‘quarter-life crisis’ is a phenomenon many twenty-somethings can relate to, all too well. A recent study by LinkedIn found that a staggering 75% of 25-33-year-olds have experienced such a ‘crisis’, burdened with the new-found “stresses associated with becoming an adult”; much like Ben, they can find themselves simply “drifting” through life.

With this crunch-period being so widespread amongst vicenarians, its predictable, then, that so many films would feature it in some capacity. Since, as Akira Kurosawa aptly puts it, “humans share common problems and films reflect that”, there are bound to be countless films reflecting ‘quarter-life crises’.

But how unified are such films in reflecting such crises? Indeed, if a person’s ‘quarter-life crisis’ is inherently based on their “careers, relationships, and finances”, then surely the socio-economic situation that surrounds them would massively influence how that ‘crisis’ manifests?  In other words, each generations’ typical ‘quarter-life crisis’ is likely to be very different, as each age group has its own socio-economic reality; a Boomer and a Millennials’ experience of being 20 years old is likely to be very different.

So, how similar are ‘quarter-life crisis’ films through the ages? How does each generations’ respective cinematic touchstone reflect its constituency’s crisis?

This image is from The Graduate. A man and women sit site by side. The woman is in a wedding dress.
Image courtesy of Mike Nichols Productions

Released in 1967, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is widely touted as being one of, if not the first, mainstream ‘quarter-life crisis’ films. A smash hit, the film garnered almost $200 million in the worldwide box-office, earned critical acclaim, and launched the careers of Dustin Hoffman and Catherine Ross. Centred around Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate who finds himself listless following his matriculation, the film chronicles the pair of tumultuous affairs he becomes involved in: first with a married but unfulfilled friend of his parents (Anne Bancroft) and later, awkwardly, her daughter (Ross). 

The strength of The Graduate, in the eyes of many critics, is how it spoke to and resonated with the young people of its time, the ‘Baby Boomers’. As Stanley Kauffman wrote in the New Republic, “The Graduate gives some substance to the contention that American films are coming of our age”. Whilst a nice thought, the sentiment becomes bleaker when the “substance” of the film is considered: The Graduate is the story of a young man feeling utterly apathetic towards adult life. As critic Jacob R. Brackman summarises, “the tensions of the movie… arise from the question: what is Benjamin doing with himself?” As the pool sequence previously mentioned would suggest, not a lot; “just drifting”.

Therefore, Ben’s complicated affairs operate as an escape from his apathy towards adult life, becoming something for him to project meaning and significance onto. As he professes to Elaine, the daughter of his middle-aged paramour and new romantic interest, “you’re the first thing for so long that I like, the first person I could stand to be with. My whole life is such a waste”. In the great “waste” of Ben’s post-college, pre-adult existence, this new romance is the only “thing” that he finds solace in. Again, as perfectly encapsulated by Brackman, “[because of Elaine] we see [Ben] behaving like a man of absolute purpose—a man who knows what he wants and fights for it”. Compared to the listless Ben we saw floating on the pool at the beginning, this charge couldn’t be more drastic. 

However, the film presents this romantic “purpose” as a stopgap solution rather than a full antidote to the ‘quarter life crisis’. After Ben manages to climatically win over Elaine during her wedding ceremony to another man, the pair flee from her outraged friends and family, escaping onto a nearby bus… but then reality hits. After the thrill of the chase is over, and Ben is finally alone with Elaine, he is once again affected with ambivalence; in a memorable final tableaux, the film ends with Ben and Elaine sitting at the back of the bus looking utterly flat, emotionless, and lifeless, as if they were “just drifting” once again.

Thus, The Graduate paints the Boomer ‘quarter-life crisis’ as one revolving around apathy. Indeed, although Ben is demonstrably rich, desired, and with many possible lucrative careers in front of him (namely, “plastics”), he nevertheless feels empty, with only fleeting romances serving as a distraction. However, equally, the film illustrates these romances as transitory: Ben will have to engage with adult life eventually, and these brief affairs aren’t a long-term escape. As Roger Ebert concluded his 30-year retrospective on the film, “I wonder how long it took him to get into plastics”.

Alternatively, for Gen X, the ‘quarter life crisis’ preventing them from moving into adult life isn’t apathy towards the future, but rather a nostalgia for the safety of the past. Released in 1995, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming may be the epitome of this ‘crisis’ and of the wider ‘slacker’ movement of the 90s, also seen in films like Clerks (1994) and Dazed and Confused (1993)

Also written by Baumbach, who would later find mainstream success with films like Marriage Story (2019) and Mistress America (2015), Kicking and Screaming tells the story of a group of college friends paralyzed by postgraduate ennui, as we follow their exploits in the year after their graduation. Rooted in Baumbach’s own experience of early adult life, the film nevertheless reflects the feelings of his generation; as Baumbach commented ten years after the film’s release, “I sort of thought, ‘Oh Jesus, I thought this was about me and my friends instead of a whole fucking generation who supposedly don’t know what they want to do with their lives’”.

Ostensibly, the film focuses on the friend group’s attempt to preserve their present, to maintain the status quo of their college experience… even if they’re self-aware that it’s a doomed task. Indeed, the characters still live near their campus, sleep with freshmen in dorm rooms, congregate in student bars, and even attend seminars and lectures, all while making comments on how much they despise “the fact we still live our college lifestyles”; there’s virtually nothing distinguishing their lives from their existence a year before, except for a cognizant self-hatred. As critic Sarah Larson reflects, “[the friend group] live in a comfortable, if self-loathing purgatory, paralyzed in part by their own romanticism”.

Moreover, this “romanticism” is perhaps the very thing causing their ‘crisis’: they’re nostalgic for the immediate past because it’s safe. In one of the more telling interactions between the friends, one posits “we graduated four months ago, what can you possibly be nostalgic for?”, which is responded to with, “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now.” This “reminiscing” of events is truly what holds the friends back: they are fervently holding onto the “good times” of the past because it is dependable and known; they still live in their college town because its sameness provides safety.

Thus, Kicking and Screaming illustrates Gen X-ers as nostalgic for the past because they’re afraid of the future, of the inescapable unknown-quality of it all. Their ‘quarter-life crisis’ is not being able to truly let go of the structure and nostalgia of the college experience and therefore not embracing the freedom, and uncertainty, of the future. Ironically, considering it’s a 90s film and released just before the internet arrives and changes everything, this nostalgia is perhaps justified!

This image is from (500) Days of Summer. Tom and Summer stand in a lift and are engaging in conversation.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Finally, for the millennial generation, the ‘quarter-life crisis’ seems to be one of passivity versus proactivity: waiting for your ‘destiny’ instead of engaging with life proactively, as highlighted by 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. In an interview with E News, screenwriter Scott Neustadter revealed that the film is “75 percent” based on a real relationship he went through with additional material being conflated from his friends’ relationships; it’s a film very much rooted in the millennial experience. 

(500) Days of Summer chronicles the ups and downs of Tom Hansen’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), over the course of (you guessed it) 500 days, touching on themes of soulmates, break ups, and purpose. Conceptually, the films is less didactic than the previous two highlighted: whilst The Graduate and Kicking and Screaming deal with the post-college years explicitly, (500) Days of Summer doesn’t, instead picking up a few years down the line, when Tom is stuck in a dead-end job.

Indeed, his relationship with Summer becomes a form of escapism from his dismal existence, with her presence in his life supposedly representing some form of destiny: a narrator repeatedly comments on Tom’s belief in the “cosmos”, and how it will be responsible for him meeting his “true love”, not Tom himself. As Gordon-Levitt himself commented on the character, “[Tom] develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl on to whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life”; Tom ascribes meaning from Summer and a forced sense of destiny, because he is generally apathetic to his life otherwise.

Suitably, then, the film ends with a rejection of ‘destiny’ and the all-powerful “cosmos”. After his relationship with Summer ends, Tom is revitalised, leaving his job and pursuing his long-standing dream of becoming an architect. In the final scene, as Tom enters the interview room, the narrator once again speaks, stating “If Tom had learned anything, it was that you can’t ascribe great cosmic significance to a simple Earthly event. Coincidence, that’s all anything ever is. Nothing more, than coincidence. Tom had finally learned there are no miracles, there is no such thing as fate, nothing is meant to be”. Yet, Tom is happier and more fulfilled than he has ever been: he has overcome his ‘quarter-life crisis’ in a way most Millennials do, learning to engage proactively in his future and finding success as result

Incidentally, (500) Days of Summer briefly references The Graduate: at a low point in their relationship, Tom and Summer watch a screening of that 1967 film, reacting to the final show of Ben and Elaine looking ambivalent at the back of the bus. Thematically, Ben and Tom couldn’t be more similar – although their ‘quarter-life crises’ have manifested differently, at their core, they’re the same: both project onto the women in their life to mask their otherwise listlessness. Indeed, perhaps that’s the message which should be taken from these three films: although the specifics of the crisis may wax and wane, the crisis remains resolute and each generation has needed to come to term with what it means to be an adult; lets just hope Gen Z find it a little easier!

Header image courtesy of Trimark Pictures