Few questions strike more fear into the hearts of 22-year-olds than, “What are you gonna do after graduation?” Unfortunately for Riley (Kit Zauhar), that’s all anyone seems to be asking.
The senior has one week left before her college experience ends, and she has a professor who wants to fail her, a roommate who wants her out, and a new love interest that just might dull the pain of her last relationship. So it’s inconvenient, to say the least, that she has to spend so much of her time deflecting questions about those postgrad fellowships she forgot to apply to.
“Actual People,” Zauhar’s directorial debut, exists in a liminal space within a larger liminal space. College is already an oasis that shields young people from reality (whether they know it or not), but the actual people who make up the film are graduating students with one foot out the door. Stripped of even the trivial responsibilities that have defined their last four years, there’s nothing left to do but alternate between partying and worrying about the future.
Riley finds plenty of time to do both, even if there are much bigger things to deal with. Still reeling from the news that her long-term college boyfriend left her for a girl in his finance class, her attempt to dull the pain with meaningless sex goes nowhere in a hurry. To make matters worse, the man she selected for her unremarkable one-night stand happened to be her older roommate, who no longer wants to live with her after things got weird. All this drama has prevented her from thinking about employment, so she’s graduating without a job, a boyfriend, or a roof over her head.
If she can graduate at all. In the midst of all the excitement, Riley forgot to turn in an important paper, and the failing grade puts her at risk of having to retake the class over the summer. But rather than doubling down and focusing on her grades, she turns her attention to Leo, a new boy who just might be the solution to her heartbreak. He’s handsome, he’s cool, and, just like her, he’s half Asian. Everything seems too good to be true, and Riley spends her last week as a student chasing love while shirking responsibility on an odyssey that takes her from New York City to her hometown of Philadelphia and back again.
It’s the kind of muted slice-of-life film that only works because a delightfully complex character anchors it. Riley is charismatic, self-destructive, and intelligent in the idiotic way that only a heartbroken college kid can be. Zauhar delivers an excellent performance, portraying someone who keeps shooting herself in the foot without resorting to the self-justifying pratfalls that weigh down so many lesser “adulting is hard” films. She’s far from self-sufficient, but she’s not a child in an adult’s body either. Much like the film’s title suggests, we’re watching an actual 22-year-old.
Not every scene in Zauhar’s episodic script is a winner. But taken together, they paint a convincing tableau of the anxiety and dysfunction that cripples kids who don’t know how elite they are. Set in a world of cool New York parties, therapy sessions, and MFA applications, “Actual People” is a portrait of a uniquely Gen Z strain of champagne problems. Any 22-year-old who can say, “It feels like everyone I know is going to grad school,” without a hint of irony is, by definition, a few degrees removed from the vast majority of actual people. But Zauhar’s sensitive touch elicits empathy for these kids, even as their pursuit of shiny objects prevents them from addressing extremely solvable problems.
“Actual People” fits within the tradition of “Slacker,” “Clerks,” and “Stranger Than Paradise,” all films about unambitious ne’er-do-wells that nevertheless suggested that their directors had big things ahead of them. But while those films succeeded by capturing the mind-numbing stagnation of Gen X boredom (and the absurd things people would do to combat it), “Actual People” updates that formula for an age of overstimulation that essentially renders boredom impossible. The whimsical handheld camera work allows viewers to float through this world in the same way that Riley and her friends drift aimlessly between stimuli. Zauhar’s characters are never at a loss for something to do, but they’re constantly paranoid that somebody else is doing something better or cooler than them.
Fortunately for the real Zauhar, who established herself as a bold talent on both sides of the camera despite barely being older than her protagonist, that almost certainly isn’t true.
Factory 25 will release “Actual People” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music beginning Friday, November 18.
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