Kicking and Screaming: Noah Baumbach’s slacker debut is a nostalgic bite of 90s reality

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Come for the jokes, stay for the fashion. Noah Baumbach’s directorial debut, Kicking and Screaming, is a charming distillation of 90s slacker posturing and the tedium of a quarter-life crisis. Now streaming on Netflix, it’s a half-step comedy about a group of recent college graduates who stay on campus to wait out the inevitable downturn of working life.

Set in the fictional town of Munton, this band of 20-somethings wander aimlessly between dorm rooms and bars. They are clumsy, lax and brutish, chasing sex and booze, pausing only to try out a little armchair philosophy and what one character calls “dime-store psychoanalysis”. When it was released in 1995, Bill Clinton was president, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the paradigm shift that accompanied 9/11’s spectacle of terror was still years away. Consequently, the film has a kind of before the flood atmosphere. There are video shops, answering machines and landlines, with a fine soundtrack by Phil Marshall that also features Blondie, the Pixies and Nick Drake.

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The central thread of an otherwise meandering plot sees would-be writers Grover (Josh Hamilton) and Jane (Olivia d’Abo) in a tug-of-war. They flirt, trade jabs at one another’s prose, and indulge in future plans. But when Jane leaves for Prague to embrace a love of Kafka and a distaste for American coffee, Grover is left alone with the idiots. Self-hate ensues, as do bottles of Colt 45 lager. In a series of flashbacks, Grover longs for his ex in what threatens to become a full-blown romcom.

Parker Posey in Kicking and Screaming.
Parker Posey in Kicking and Screaming. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps the most obnoxious of his fellow slackers is Max Belmont, played by Chris Eigeman, an irritable rich kid who spends his time shitting on book clubs and falling into bed with Miami (Parker Posey). Otis (Carlos Jacott) is holding off graduate school in Milwaukee for a job at Video Planet, while horny freshman Amy (Perrey Reeves) laces her seduction with the extremely quotable line, “Come on, be romantically self-destructive with me.” Baumbach himself appears as Danny, whose contributions include posing absurd philosophical conundrums, such as: “What would you rather do? Fuck a cow or lose your mother?”

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Much of the film’s momentum relies on the fallout from these gags, and similar tests of trivia: “Name eight movies where monkeys play key roles,” or “all eight Friday the 13th movies.” When the drink runs out, characters break off to fiddle with the jukebox and play darts, musing on their rut. But with too much solipsism comes moments of cruelty, resonant of Baumbach’s later work in Greenberg and Marriage Story. Although it tackles similar themes to Reality Bites, which appeared a year earlier to much fanfare, the tone of Kicking and Screaming has more in common with the work of French directors Éric Rohmer and François Truffaut.

In one of the final scenes, when Grover begs an airline clerk to get him on a sold-out flight to Prague, his longing for Jane matches his need for an end to postgrad limbo. “Today I have to go. I have to. And when I tell people about this in the future, I know that … it’ll make a good story of my young adult life.”

With planes grounded due to the coronavirus, I found myself rooting for the young beau with an emotion unlikely in peacetime. And never more so than at the moment when Grover utters what is perhaps the most pivotal line of the whole film: “Despite my intention to do nothing, things happened anyway.”

Kicking and Screaming is streaming now on Netflix