Textual Anxiety, Straight Talk, and the Millennial Advantage: A Critical Reading of Nostalgia in the Film “About Alex”

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There’s something almost offensively obvious about the 80s nostalgia strangling director Jesse Zwick’s 2014 debut indie film, About Alex. Indeed, in his review for Variety, film critic Justin Chang identifies this very nostalgia as the film’s double-edged sword:

Explicitly acknowledging a debt to over-recycled source material is a bold move, and one perhaps suited to the present era, but actually name-dropping Jeff Goldblum, or having a character point out “This is like one of those ’80s movies,” feels like a wink too far. Postmodern and self-referential though it may be, this “Big Chill 2.0” isn’t as wised up as it wants to appear: It ends on a series of pat resolutions and too-easy breakthroughs that make its nostalgia look all the more naive.

But I think Chang misses something important about the way nostalgia gets deployed in this film. Specifically, after one character points out the “80s movie” issue, Siri—a  relatively unremarkable except for the obvious symbolism of her name—makes the movie’s more central argument, not insignificantly in the form of a rhetorical question, “I just don’t see why everything in our lives has to be like something else…It’s like we can’t just experience something and let it be.” At this point the film’s stereotypical cultural studies academic, Max Greenfield, starts going off about “the way people relate today…” and the point gets buried. But I’d like to pick it up here, maybe the film’s overhanded nostalgia for days past (another issue raised in the film at another point) speaks to something fundamental about the way we live our lives, not just today, but all the time. Maybe we have no choice but to stay mired in nostalgia, always trying to read the chaos of the present through something from the past that we can make sense of. My argument is that, maybe in spite of Zweck, that’s what Alex shows us: that what we need in life is something—whether it’s a friend who writes our stories or the plot of an 80s movie—to make it work in the present. Maybe “living in the moment” hasn’t ever been the way that human beings processed their lives.

Gabe Toro’s review for IndieWire

Noel Murray’s review for The Dissolve

Zwick tries to make the idea of crumbling college relationships into something resembling an actual crisis, and he means to offer some insight into the choices and complications facing youngsters today as they transition from their late 20s to their early 30s. But he fails to work those ambitions into an actual story where these characters take action.

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