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Freddie Bartholomew

Freddie Bartholomew

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MOVIESNot-so-grown-up adults are stars of new moviesBy Monica HesseTHE WASHINGTON POST Tuesday, June 16, 2009 They are growing up.

They are undergoing rites of passage, taking on responsibility, awkwardly developing.

In the course of 120 minutes and a one large popcorn, we will watch them leave childhood, or at least start to, clumsily toddling along, making mistakes and taking missteps as adolescents must.

They are tenderly, cinematically coming of age.

They are 34 years old.

Narratives of maturation have been a Hollywood standard since Scout befriended Boo Radley in 1962, since James Dean rebelled with cause in 1955, since Freddie Bartholomew became a Captain Courageous in 1937.

But the formative-themed films of recent years have added something.

That something is 5 o'clock shadow.

The characters doing the growing up are already grown-ups, at least biologically — just waiting for an inciting event to take them the rest of the way.

Our protagonists can be either funny ("Knocked Up") or melancholy ("Lars and the Real Girl"), so long as they are also listless, confused and soul-searching.

We mock them.

We are them.

Well, some of us are them.

Some of us are their parents, wondering where we went so wrong.

In the end, what makes them most remarkable isn't that they're struggling — twenty- and thirtysomethings have been doing that for years — but that they're convinced that their confusion is unique.

Our I'm-a-mess/you're-a-mess culture might have made them that way.

"Away We Go," the newest film to fit this trudging-to-age description, is scheduled to open in Austin on Friday after its initial limited release last week .

Starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, it chronicles the adultification of Burt and Verona, goofy-haired (him) and vintage-clad (her) hipsters who accidentally get pregnant and then embark on a cross-country trip in search of a suitable place to raise the baby.

Their current place, physically and mentally, is not suitable.

Their wee house looks to be made of dust mites.

They struggle with commitment issues (her) and directionlessness (him).

They have jobs, but these jobs are more placeholders than vocations: he sells insurance, she illustrates medical textbooks.

Their broken bedroom window is repaired with cardboard.

The film was penned by first-time screenwriters Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida.

Eggers is the writer best known for "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," a book about caring for his little brother after their parents both died of cancer.

The twentysomething characters in "Heartbreaking Work" were plunged into adulthood before they were prepared for it; in "Away We Go," the protagonists are a decade older but only marginally more settled.

"Are we (foul-ups)?" Verona asks Burt as they contemplate bringing a child into their trial-and-error lives.

"We're 34, and we don't even have this stuff figured out." Why don't Burt and Verona have it figured out? There are excuses: Her parents died when she was in college; his are impossible and in the process of absconding to Belgium.

But one gets the sense that the couple is meant to represent their generation, not to stand apart from it.

The seriously arrested development feels like something we've seen a lot lately.

In last year's "Momma's Man," the protagonist stops by his folks' for a brief visit, then ends up staying for months in the tantalizing cocoon of childhood (in "Failure to Launch," Matthew McConaughey's character never left the parental abode).

The low-budget versions of these films have even received their own slacker-cute name: The "Mumblecore" movement, coined in 2005, refers to digital films made in the 2000s about twentysomethings who don't know where they're going or how they're expected to get there.

Zach Braff, 34, is the prince of Belatedly Growing Up, and he's two-thirds of the way through a coming-of-age trilogy.

In 2004's "Garden State" he played a 26-year-old stumbling to adulthood, prompted by his mother's death.

In "The Last Kiss," released two years later, he played a 28-year-old stumbling to adulthood, prompted by his girlfriend's unplanned pregnancy.

"Everyone I know is having a crisis," one character confides to another in that movie.

"I know you're not supposed to get them until midlife, but I think something's happening to our metabolism." Each of the characters in these movies shares one major trait: the insecure belief that they — and possibly their friends — are singularly incompetent and unprepared for life, more so than their parents or grandparents or any other humans in the history of adult preparedness.

Meanwhile, the traditional coming-of-age movies, the ones featuring 12- to 18-year-olds having transformative experiences, have disappeared — except in Hogwarts, where Harry Potter comes of age annually.

Says film historian Leonard Maltin, "Twenty-five years ago it was 'Stand by Me,' 'Old Yeller,' and adolescent boys." And now ...

If 60 is the new 30, is 40 the new 10? Of course, "the chicken and egg question," says Maltin, "is always: Do movies reflect society as it is, or do they inspire behavior? I think there's something in the zeitgeist right now where a lot of young people don't want to take that next step into adulthood." Who can blame the movies, when we've been reading for a decade about the delayed onset adulthood of Generation X? When some pediatricians now label their practices "Pediatrics and Young Adult Medicine"? When a recent University of Chicago survey revealed that most Americans considered the age of adulthood to be a ripe old 26? In 2000, the MacArthur Foundation became so concerned about the state of the twentysomething that it sponsored the Network on Transitions to Adulthood — a decade-long series of interdisciplinary studies dedicated to figuring out why Gen-Xers, and now millennials, were taking longer to finish school, get married, buy houses and have kids.

The well-meaning hand-wringing over the plight of the delayed adult also has spilled into the vernacular (the tired Quarterlife Crisis) and the book world ("Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice From Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived," because now being a survivor requires only having a birthday).

Hasn't becoming a parent always been scary? Don't people of all ages occasionally wish they could go back to Momma's house and just cocoon for a while? Isn't it possible that these delayed adults are taking what the shrinks call a "developmentally appropriate" old feeling and giving it a new name? Does anybody ever have it figured out? Let's go back to 1994 and the godfather of delayed adult listlessness, "Reality Bites." Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke were unformed, undefined and so certain that their plight was unique that Ryder's character spent the movie making a movie about her friends' inability to come of age.

They were in their early 20s, though, just recently out of college, so their behavior can be somewhat excused.

But in the 15 years since the release of "Reality Bites," this lugubriousness appears to have crept upward into older demographics.

Not just post-college, but post-grad school, post-dating, post-marriage.

These characters have jobs, they have relationships, and yet they still fret endlessly that they are not grown up enough, that they haven't unlocked the secret of adulthood.

Why do they do this? Haven't they been reading the books written specifically for them? Haven't they been meeting with their life coaches and attending their workshops? Maybe they have.

Maybe after a decade of reading that their age group is incompetent, that normal life stages should be considered a crisis, and that they need seminars and self-help books just to help them reach that elusive adulthood alive, they have started to live down to expectations.

Which means that Burt and Verona are not foul-ups.

They're the new normal.
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