SCREAMING GENIUS.

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WHAT I USED TO BE ABLE to pass off as just another bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.”

That’s the concern expressed by one but felt by many of the characters hanging around, making false starts or avoiding them altogether in Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s 1995 snapshot of post-college ennui.

The film opens at a graduation night party so drab and civilized it could be mistaken for the funeral of a person no one knew all that well. The guest of honor sits stewing at a table with three friends, muttering over the impending loss of his identity.

“Eight hours ago, I was Max Belmont, English major, college senior,” he explains when pressed. “Now I am Max Belmont who does nothing.

“All of my accomplishments are in the past.”

Elsewhere at the party, Jane is telling Grover, her boyfriend and Max’s roommate, that she has opted to study writing in Prague rather than stagnate with him in Brooklyn.

“You’re just postponing that get-started year,” he accuses.

But she’s not convinced: “I’m not postponing anything; I’m postponing months of emotional paralysis.”

Drunk, scared and shellshocked, he throws out increasingly foolish arguments — that she’ll come back from the land where Kafka lived as “a bug” — while avoiding all the pertinent topics.

“Do you have anything you’d like to add?” she finally asks. Grover doesn’t change the subject as he had when she suggested he could go with her to Prague…but he also doesn’t answer.

MIRTH IN ADVERTISING

When I first stumbled upon Kicking and Screaming in 1996, it looked by the video packaging to be another sexy, flippant early-20s farce, this one focusing on Eric Stoltz’s misadventures with Parker Posey and Olivia d’Abo, the two women bookending him in the cover image.

Instead I found a meditation on the absurdities of post-grad life, focusing on four young men — none of whom are played by Stoltz (or Posey or d’Abo, for that matter) — too scared or exhausted at the prospect of adulthood to actually join in. So they remain in their college town, where, Max explains, “There is only small.”

The story was slight to say the least, the moments small — but the film held my attention to the end, which didn’t feel like an end at all, but a beginning. Before I had time to take it in, the screen had gone black and Freedy Johnston’s song Bad Reputation was whining from the speakers. I rewound a few times, wondering if I’d missed something in that last flashback between Jane and Grover, two drunk college seniors staring at each other as they realize something has already started between them.

When I returned the tape, I suspected I’d seen a good film more than I felt so. It didn’t stand out much from the stacks of movies I watched that summer, whiling away the evening hours until it was time to pack up and return to school. But then, months later, I heard a familiar voice on a friend’s stereo, and could not manage to summon the origin of this song by an artist I couldn’t identify and felt sure I hadn’t heard on the radio.

“Ryan said it’s in some movie that he loves and has memorized all the words to,” she said.

And then it came back to me.

Soon I watched the film again, and liked it more. As I inched — and sometimes sped — toward my own graduation, my sympathy for the characters’ situation grew. Perhaps I watched it as some kind of reminder, some hope of a talisman: Please don’t let me turn out like that.

WORST-CASE SCENARIOS AFTER GRADUATION

Writing and directing his first feature, Baumbach expertly captures the extended childhood that so many well-educated, moreorless privileged young people are allowed — and that some never really move on from. With no school to provide order to their days (“I find myself writing ‘Go to bed’ and ‘Wake up’ in my date book like they’re two different events…”), his characters — wounded Grover, surly Max, neurotic Otis and naive, good-hearted Skippy — find themselves adrift in non-student status. With no excuses. Nothing to overshadow — or delay — the fear that they might never live up to their own secret great expectations.

All that tabula rasa is enough to make a person stop to think and never start up again. At least, that’s the situation in which Grover, the true center of the film, finds himself.

Jane leaves Grover as the film begins, and, with the exception of some meandering messages left on the answering machine, her character is seen only in flashbacks detailing how the couple met and began their romance.

All the while, present-tense Grover is all over the map. He chainsmokes — a habit he picked up from Jane just before she, ever more responsible and independent, quit — and drinks, doing all he can to survive a girlfriend whose answering-machine confession that she misses him he can hardly bring himself to hear, but also can’t get past…. To add to his disorientation, he’s also fielding calls from his newly-separated parents — discussing Knicks games with his father and assuring his mother (who, like Jane, made a decision for herself that has left her male counterpart adrift) that “Dad’s OK.”

We watch as the four grads meet for drinks at the townie bar and troll for Freshman Betties at campus watering holes, clinging as pseudo-casually as they can to the old life. Whereas Grover sleeps with coeds, plays Tetris and pretends he’s working on a novel, Max spends his days at home, doing crosswords and suggesting trips to the bar as early as 1 p.m. Skippy promptly re-enrolls in school to audit some of the classes he missed out on in “a measly four years” (as well as to be near his girlfriend, Miami, who is still a student). Otis, who deferred his admission to graduate school in Milwaukee because he felt there was more reason for him to stay, moves back in with his mom, finds employment with Video Planet (where, he is surprised to learn, a second interview is required) and forms a book club with Chet, the perpetual student and bartender. In one hilarious-but-true scene, Otis tries to bluff his way through an analysis of All The Pretty Horses with Chet, just as he must have done in countless university discussion sections.

But when Max sleeps with Skippy’s girlfriend and the news spreads quietly but quickly among the group, we see how shaky the old friendship — that bond of disparate types, forged first by proximity and then by familiarity, that is so common to college but so hard to maintain in the real world — is as well.

Scene after scene, we’re shown, through nuances and outbursts, that these young adults are still children. [Even Jane, the most together character, wears a retainer, which she fidgetingly moves in and out of her mouth at strange moments in conversation.] They don’t want to be held responsible for anything they do, and they don’t want to do anything for which they can be held responsible.

They’re overcome by the totality of adult life that lies before them. Convinced that they know enough about the world to see how it — they — will end, they can’t bear the work — the life, the experience — that must come in between. Max, who finds himself awash in nostalgia for events that haven’t even happened to him yet, wishes aloud that he were old, a distinguished man “retiring after a lifetime of hard labor.” And even in the first moments of his romance with Jane, Grover yearns for the comfort of an established relationship, a couple with the familiarity born of experience. So that he could just lean over and delight her with a kiss….

PASSION, ENTHUSIASM, EFFORT. FROM GROVER?

These characters — this Grover, Max, Otis and Skippy — spend so much time longing, without energy, and talking, without naked sincerity, about what they want. Baumbach lulls us so with these witty, detailed, small scenes — interrupted by the occasional languid snippet of a flashback — that we find ourselves caught up in the rhythm of the film, in the suspended animation of these young bodies. Then, just as in life, we’re caught unprepared when a big moment comes along.

Brought to the airport for a second attempt at sending Otis off to grad school, Grover summons the spontaneity and daring to walk up to the international terminal and buy a ticket for the next flight to Prague. To Jane. Inspired by his own sudden display of nerve, the words spill out of his mouth as he makes an impassioned plea to the woman at the counter to find a seat for him. But it wouldn’t be Grover if, even in this spontaneous moment, he weren’t dissecting his own behavior, analyzing the feeling that comes with actually doing something:

When I tell people about this in the future I know that, you know, it’ll be the time that I went. And I know that when I review this whole episode in my head I’m not gonna’ know what I did or why I did it. I think they’ve done something with the real Grover … But it’ll make a good story of my young adult life: The time I chose to go to Prague.

Coming as it does after so much verbal sparring and self-protection, it’s a shockingly vulnerable scene. And the look on Grover’s face when he remembers that he needs a passport, which is not on his person, is heartbreaking to watch. Truly: The second time I watched the film, I had to fight the urge to hide my eyes from what I then knew was coming.

Grover’s is not a tremendous setback, of course. As the woman says, “You can always go tomorrow.”

And, from the little informal polling I’ve conducted, it seems most friends who’ve seen the film do think that Grover will go the next day, that he has turned a corner just by making the attempt. But I — I’m not so sure.

Tomorrow? How does going the next day fit in with Grover’s impromptu story of his young adult life? This was one small step, yes; but I don’t think the tremendously inactive Grover of the previous 96 minutes is quite ready for the practicality of packing a bag — and a passport — and getting a ride to the airport….

That would be so mundane, so much like other people’s lives. Which is just what Grover and his friends have been fighting so stubbornly, and childishly, to avoid.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.