I had a spot of difficulty categorizing Brooklynite hipster director Brett Haley’s film The New Year. It’s not a drama, for it lacks the proper structure, and besides is not terribly dramatic. It’s not a coming-of-age film, for the characters, mid-to-late twentysomethings, have seen the threshold of adulthood come and go- all have jobs and some even have children. It’s not a love triangle, for no one’s in love. It’s not a ‘Slice of Life,’ for the characters are not living, but just passively persisting. They’re passive friends, passive workers, passive agressives, passive romantics- upon finishing the film, one is hard pressed to give even a short list of meaningful actions taken by the characters. Like boats adrift in an abandoned harbor, they occasionally bump into each other, but that’s often the extent of it- next scene!
The setting is Pensacola, Florida, a post-British Petroleum Gulf Coast town, a sprawling retirement community whose population, like its beaches, is slowly, agonizingly, yet inexorably, eroding away. In every sense that one can call to mind, it’s dying. And the meager youth that subsists by servicing the aged residents faces social, developmental, and economic stagnation, and worse, isolation. In order to drive this unfortunate set of realities home, director Haley gives us recurring bleak shots of unoccupied condo complexes, deserted shopping malls, roads with no cars on them. The chips are out and the music’s playing, but no one’s at this party.
The set-up: Sunny, a quiet bookworm, dropped out of college two years ago and returned home to care for her retired professor father, who’s dying of cancer. She works at the counter of a dingy bowling alley, whose owner hasn’t been paying the bills and is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. Her boyfriend is an earnest children’s karate instructor, and her best friend is a spunky, assertive former classmate who has recently become engaged to the father of her child, a terse fellow in a ganster cap who works at Red Lobster and whose near exclusive response is,“Word.” Sunny’s mind is blown when a former high school peer, Isaac, rides by her house on his old bicycle, returning from an unencouraging two-year stint as a New York stand-up comic.
So let’s populate this not-quite romantic triangle: Sunny, the bookworm bowling attendant, her karate instructor boyfriend, and a failed, decidedly un-funny stand-up comic (the central joke of his routine is that he’s a virgin, and can’t decide whether he wants to lose his virginity or not). If this film were made twenty years ago, the stable boyfriend would perhaps have been a businessman, and the love interest would have been a dynamic bohemian type- a brilliant artist, or musician. As it stands, we must feel sorry for our protagonist- it’s slim pickings at the boy buffet.
Although we mustn’t feel too bad, for Sonny herself isn’t a terribly sympathetic lead. She coats all her conversations and emotions with an agonizing, cringe-inducing shellac of unclever irony, to the effect that all her words come off as half-hearted, insincere, cardboard-cutout. Through Trieste Kelly Dunn’s subtle expressions and deft acting skills, we’re always vaguely aware that Sonny is distressed and internally conflicted, but all this is never articulated- we get the sense that even within herself, Sonny probably can’t bring this stuff to the surface. We know she likes Isaac, and is ambivalent about her relationship with Neal (the karate guy), but the source of her ennui goes deeper than “boy troubles,” as Sonny’s father calls them.
Over the past few years, much ink has been spilt over what some call the ‘self-infantilization’ of the youth: the refusal or inability of contemporary twentysomethings to become adults in the traditional American sense- to find stable employment, form lasting relationships, accept responsibility, move out of their parents’ houses, etc. To conjure the right image here, think of a stereotypical hipster: living in their parents’ basement, either unemployed or part-time employed, clad in Converse sneakers, ill-fitting pants and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, ambling about town carrying their prized possessions in a tiny Fjallraven-Kanken backpack and waxing eloquent about some indie bands you’ve never heard of, occasionally playing house at Goodwill by donning grown-up clothes. An overgrown schoolchild, or at best a wayward teenager. A lurid, absurd caricature- but such is today’s fashion.
The fate of Sonny and her friends is left up in the air. The final scene takes place in the last moments of New Year’s Eve, with Sonny clutching the limp hand of her dying father as the hordes in Times Square chant the countdown. The symbolism is clear: the Baby Boomers are not long for this world, and there is no one to take their place once they depart. Before the ball drops, the scene goes dark, and that’s it. Roll credits.
Do our socially awkward, “How-do-I-even-react-to-that” heroes gain a measure of control over their meandering existences, or do they simply float along until some merciful disease or accident puts an end to what Sonny herself predicts will be “the long, miserable haul”? I would like to quote Bob Dylan and say that the answer is blowing in the wind, but for this film’s characters, there is neither literal nor metaphorical wind- and that seems to be the point. These boy-men and girl-women are sailboats without motors, and the sea they sail is stagnant- the world has nowhere to blow them; they’re superfluous.
At least I can cross Pensacola off my list of places to visit.