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Entries in Fort Tilden [2015] (1)


Fort Tilden (2015)

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Pop culture broadly defines Millennials as coddled, vapid, self-obsessed know-it-alls. It’s unclear how much of that reputation has been earned, and how much was propagated by cynical Boomers eager to at once critique and capitalize on the new hip generation. When Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie burst onto the scene in 2003’s millionaires-meet-common-folk TV series, The Simple Life, many Americans viewed their out-of touch exploits with a mixture of horror and amusement. Nearly twelve years later, the entertainment landscape is so overrun with Kardashians, contestants, and constant commenters that Hilton/Ritchie’s Patient Zero antics look positively worldly in contrast. Though we’re now in an era where Boomer analysis of this phenomenon has transcended essays and become art,* we haven’t seen much in the way of Gen-Y introspection (a phrase some might consider oxymoronic) that doesn’t come across as showily defensive.

Co-writer/directors Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers bridge this gap with their wonderful new comedy, Fort Tilden. Allie (Clare McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliott) are two aimless twenty-five-year-olds living in a pretty fabulous New York loft. Allie is days away from joining the Peace Corps, less for altruistic reasons than for the benefits of appearing to be altruistic. Harper is a wannabe artist who’s desperate for attention (and money) from her constantly travelling businessman-turned-Bollywood-actor father (Mark Wing-Davey). They bide their time shopping, complaining, and critiquing people at parties; at one soiree, during which a pair of twin sisters performs a duet, Harper texts, “Naomi is the one who doesn’t have talent and Leia is the one who also doesn’t have talent.”

At that same event, Allie and Harper chat up a pair of buff, detached young dudes named Russ (Jeffrey Scapperotta) and Sam (Griffin Newman), who invite them to hang the next day at Fort Tilden Beach. Harper agrees, even though Allie is supposed to spend that time gathering paperwork for her Peace Corps liaison (Allyson Kaye Daniel). Suffice it to say, things don’t go as planned. The girls’ simple bike ride to the beach becomes an eye-opening odyssey that threatens to un-arrest their development and alter their friendship.

Fort Tilden is like an upscale version of Clerks (or, more accurately, Clerks II). Filled with oddball side characters, insightful commentary on insulated youth, and quote-worthy existential crises (How much is too much for an umbrella barrel? Where's the fashion line between "Southwestern hipster" and "meth-head"? Is an open garbage can the safest place to put stray kittens if it looks like rain?), Violet-Bliss and Rogers deliver a funny and cutting critique of unfocused privilege. They don't let their characters off the hook, but they don't cut the audience any slack, either.

I understand the inclination to avoid this movie. McNulty and Elliott play needy and vapid so naturally that one couldn't be blamed for turning off the film's trailer--let alone assuming that spending ninety-eight minutes with these characters would be downright unbearable. The key to Fort Tilden's success (what makes it, in fact, essential viewing) is the razor-sharp dialogue. Just as Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino write idealized versions of slacker/criminal conversations,

Violet-Bliss and Rogers capture the contradictions of a youth culture obsessed with independence but ill-equipped to handle it. Theirs is a language of eloquent stupidity, marked by phrases like "adorably tedious" and Harper's observation that "This place is awesome. It's such a piece of shit."

But don't mistake Harper and Allie for bad people, just because they're clueless and more than a little stuck up. Their brush with the real world widens the cracks in their relationship, and as they finally (finally) get to the beach, the polite facade they've constructed to deal with each other splinters. Harper takes Allie to task for refusing to admit that she doesn't really want to help people in Liberia, and Allie points out that Harper's lack of effort is a greater contributor to her failure as an artist than a lack of inspiration. Indeed, Harper's penchant for creating fake obituaries for her enemies is the closest we (or Allie) see her get to producing anything.

In the climax, Violet-Bliss and Rogers hold a mirror up to Allie and Harper in the form of a group of kids they meet at the beach. The guys they'd planned to meet are there, of course, but they've invited two other girls as replacement dates. They're younger, well off, and better traveled, but they exhibit a depth of self-obsession and narrowness of self-awareness that's too much for even our protagonists to handle.

The movie doesn't end tidily. The filmmakers are smart enough to know that one earth-shattering misadventure isn't enough to turn actual people's lives around--at least not immediately. In fact, Harper and Allie end their day mentally busted open. When Allie confronts her neighbor (Neil Casey) about the bike she borrowed (and failed to return), her repentance looks more like defensiveness; she's finally grown the spine she needs to move forward, but her inherent narcissism aims this new-found assertiveness at the wrong target. We're left to wonder if these lessons will stick or pop out of existence with the next selfie. But we're also left moderately invested in the answer, which is far more than could have been expected at the start of the film.

Dumb, affluent twentysomethings are not new subjects in entertainment. Bret Easton Ellis built an entire career on them in the mid 1980s. So why the outrage at characters like Harper and Allie, and their real-life counterparts? Is it a symptom of the Information Age, in which the perpetual content cycle demands we feed and feed into the most garish behaviors of the newest and least understood products of our culture? We rarely see millennial portraits that celebrate the can-doers, the innovators, the ones who believe in making the world interesting, if not better. Instead, we're fed more "reality"; more scripted, garish behavior that boosts ratings, revenue, and fear of a subspecies that thinks in hashtags and acts only in self-interest.

Fort Tilden is an entertaining antidote to all that noise. Violet-Bloom and Rogers poke lovingly at their unloved subjects, showing them as ridiculous without ridiculing them. As the story progresses the filmmakers transpose Harper and Allie's harsh judgment of others with our own judgments of them. We laugh at Harper's shallowness as she plunks a copy of Infinite Jest onto the couch, eager to impress the guy she hopes to hook up with. It's funny because she probably hasn't read it. Odds are, neither have you.

*Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young and TV Land’s Younger offer distinct but similarly bewildered Gen X theses on Gen Y. For a comedic portrait of mid-thirties surrender to hipsterism, check out Hulu's Difficult People.