The opening moments of Mark Mann’s Generation Um… cast a spell, or possibly a hex, of a vague nineties-ish aura. There’s some insistent dialogue between two young women, recalling both a poor man’s Tarantino and a poor man’s Kevin Smith, about whether “shat” is a word. There’s Keanu Reeves, who began that decade doing iconically silly Bill and Ted movies, then capped it with The Matrix, driving the women around. And there’s the movie’s title, which harkens back to movies like Reality Bites, Kicking and Screaming, and Walking and Talking, attempting to sum up and analyze generational angst.
Which generation’s angst we’re talking about (or, in the articulate parlance of the movie, “um”-ness) is not made clear. Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), the two squabbling girls, look like they’re in their twenties, placing the generational onus on the poor and unsuspecting Millennials. But isn’t Keanu Reeves pushing 50? Like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, he’s certainly well-preserved, and could pass for ten years younger; the movie never makes it clear if it is taking advantage of his still-youthful good looks, or if his character, John, really is meant to be a 50-year-old guy living in a barely-furnished apartment with a decades-younger roommate.
The movie specifically refuses to answer this question. That roommate, who seems like a vicious caricature of someone who the writer-director has met and hates, at one point asks him: “How old are you, anyway?” John does not answer. No one in Generation Um… answers anyone directly, for the most part; the first chunk of the movie is context-light fragments, cutting between John and the girls, shooting New York City in grainy but bold colors, a departure from the digital aesthetic of many micro-budget indies.
If you can ignore the self-consciously elliptical avoidance of complete sentences or scenes, some of these fragments do achieve a sense of place — or at least of staring at a place for a long time. Mann is big on staring, in front of the camera and behind it. We watch Reeves eat a cupcake. We watch Reeves put ketchup on his plate at a diner. We watch him lean on a car in the dead of night. These extended shots of almost nothing happening are in a three-way tie for second-most interesting moment of the movie. The number one slot, in part by default, comes about 30 minutes in, when John steals a video camera from some kind of flash mob, and they pursue him until he makes it onto a subway train. Something is happening!
But John’s acquisition of the camera turns out to be a major element of the movie and, as such, its descent into indie-movie noodling. Camera in hand, he meets up with Mia and Violet again and begins taping them at their apartment, attempting to out-horrible the documentary Winona Ryder was making in Reality Bites. John’s home movies do create a belated excuse for the movie’s stuttering, off-kilter visual strategy, which is to cut between long, fixed takes and handheld shots, with no seeming reason beyond to break the movie’s rhythm. That messiness is in place well before he steals the camera, though, so the conceit feels redundant.
Once night falls and the movie moves mostly indoors, the tedium really begins. Reeves stares, puzzled and/or inscrutable, and talks about how “confused” he is by the girls, who talk obliquely about their traumatic pasts. Clemens has kind of a Michelle Williams vibe of low-key but inconsolable sadness, while Novakovich has a showier and more pantsless part; she spends a lot of the movie yelling and gesturing in her underwear, like she’s prepping a big theatrical monologue that never actually happens. The point of the movie seems to be: like, inarticulation, or something? Bam! Generation roasted! That’s what we should tell Mark Mann, anyway, to encourage him to move to a new topic.