Friday, September 13, 2019

Oh, Grow Up

Recently, I've seen Unicorn Store and Dave Made A Maze. They're interesting movies with a theme of completing the maturation process. Kit and Dave, respectively, are middle-class White Millennials, with supportive families and, apparently, the sort of carefree childhoods that make the responsibilities of adult life burdensome. Interestingly the love interests of both protagonists are non-White; these characters bring the audience into the protagonist's world. Both movies also have a magical element to them that, while central to the plot, undermines the story to some degree or another. In Unicorn Store, belief in the actual existence of the creatures is very rare; Kit and the unicorn salesmen are the only characters at the start of the movie who believe and it's not 100% clear to the audience (and some of the other characters) that Kit isn't undergoing a psychotic break, which is somewhat at odds with the theme of the movie overall. Likewise in Dave Made A Maze, Dave has nearly created a cardboard TARDIS; it even has artificial life inside. But the fact that the other characters aren't supposed to appreciate the creation at first forces them to come across as somewhat less impressed with this feat than one would expect. Of the two, I think that Unicorn Store is a better movie. Kit's coming to understand how to allow human beings to love her, rather than wishing for a Unicorn to fill that role, comes across as more natural and authentic-seeming than Dave managing to bring the world around him to his way of thinking, which has more of a deus (or perhaps Minotaur) ex machina feeling to it.

But the different endpoints of the characters make for an interesting contrast, given the gender differences between them, and it makes their processes feel gendered, as well. Kit's unicorn represents not only unconditional love, but a love that has no choice but to see one as one wishes to be seen. And once the audience understands this ideal, of a love that doesn't ask anything in return, there is a certain poignancy in Kit eventually learning to make peace with the idea that the adult world, the real world, doesn't work this way. Dave's maze represents the feeling of mastery and competence; Dave Made A Maze has Dave be quite explicit about this. And only when Dave is able to convince his friends to back him in his quest to follow the maze trope to its conclusion (a process that itself was quite unconvincing) can Dave be okay with who he is. Dave Made A Maze is also hampered by it's need to obscure the price that the people around him may be paying. When a number of friends and strangers alike, lead by Dave's stereotypically long-suffering girlfriend Annie (the only non-White member of the cast), enter the maze on a rescue mission, the booby traps that Dave had built into the place result in several apparent deaths. While the audience is shown that the maze is capable of drawing (and apparently consuming) blood, streamers and construction paper fill in. The result makes the apparent deaths less openly horrific, but have the effect of allowing Dave to be unclear on whether or not they're genuine. The closing credits imply that everyone survived none the worse for wear, but it struck me as both dubious and cheapening.

In any event, when compared to one another, the tropes that women's maturation requires that they change themselves, while men's maturation requires that the world change to accommodate the conditions that men place on the willingness to change come across clearly. It would be interesting to see gender-swapped, but otherwise exact, remakes of these movies. I would like to see what the audience response to them would be. although it is worth noting that the themes of each movie don't come across as so strongly gender-linked when viewed independently. (Perhaps this is one of the problems with the movie industry more broadly, in the minds of activists, it sees itself as fragmented and a group of independent voices, while outsiders often see a single, monolithic entity.)

In any event, both movies struck me as interesting. As a non-White Gen Xer who has little to no real nostalgia for my childhood, it's an interesting glimpse into a particular vision of the Millennial process of growing up. I don't know that I would have been interested if I'd know what the themes were going in, but having seen them, I find myself with a broader interest in this cinema niche. Perhaps that's worthy of being seen as a measure of success.

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