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The Great Regression: “Little”, “Shazam!”, “Unicorn Store” and the New Cinema of Arrested Development…

It’s always fun to pick at trends in contemporary cinema, especially when so many movies with similar ideas arrive in such rapid succession.

Film production is a long and arduous process. This is part of what distinguishes it from television. Films spend years in development and then production, their releases carefully managed and synchronised. As a medium, mainstream cinema often lacks the urgency suggested by the churn of television. It is harder to immediately react to trends. This is why, for example, the feature film Slender Man arrived more than half-a-decade after the character had taken the internet by storm and arguably after culture’s attention had wandered in other directions. Similarly, the success of movies like Iron Man and The Avengers led other studios to pursue that model of film-making, but it’s telling that the DCEU lagged roughly half a decade behind with Man of Steel and Justice League.

This is why it is particularly interesting when movies tackling the same big ideas happen to be released around the same time; Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Capote and Infamous. These films arrive so quickly that they are unlikely to exist in response to one another. Instead, they suggest similar ideas developed in parallel, perhaps hinting at some deeper motivating factor that spurred these similar ideas into development. Recent weeks have seen the release of three relatively distinct films operating in three very different genres; Shazam! is a superhero story, Little is a broad nostalgic comedy, Unicorn Store is a quirky independent film. However, each of those three films gets at the same idea.

Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store are all stories about the intersection of childhood and adulthood. Shazam!, Little and Unicorn Store all feature adults who become children, in a manner of speaking. Of course, Unicorn Store is rather less literal than the other two examples, with Kit content to simply recapture her childhood dreams rather than to physically transform herself into a child. While Shazam! might more accurately be described as the story of a child who becomes an adult, the story’s central thrust is that Billy Batson needs to lean to be comfortable being a child and that he cannot remain an adult superhero forever. (Indeed, the primary plot of Shazam! features an adult trying to reclaim “the power of Shazam”, with the film insisting that it belong to a child.)

Still, taken together, these films suggest an interesting trend within contemporary pop culture. They hint at the awkward relationship that exists between childhood and adulthood in modern society, and the difficult that many individuals face in navigating the boundaries between the two. In Little, a forty-year-old tech entrepreneur finds herself transformed into her teenage self so that she might live the childhood that she previously denied herself. In Shazam!, a superhero is able to transform into a child with the mere mention of the title word, able to retreat from the responsibilities of heroism into the comforts of a warm and loving family environment. In Unicorn Store, Kit still lives in her parents’ house and sleeps in her childhood bedroom, dreaming of owning a unicorn.

These films are rather strange, in large part because they run counter to so many of the beloved stories with which they might otherwise be compared. During the eighties and even into the new millennium, children dreamed of the freedom that being an adult might afford them. In recent years, many of those children grew into adults who longed for the relative safety and security of childhood.

“Ageing” and “deaging” is a common narrative trope, one that is practically shorthand. Indeed, in Little, when Jordan Sanders is transformed into a child, one of her first suggestions in “Benjamin Button Syndrome”, an allusion to the David Fincher film about a man who aged in reverse. There are countless examples in popular literature, often as a subset of the classic “body swap” or “body transformation” narratives. However, in American popular culture, the tendency has been to focus on the transformation of children into adults. Stories like Big and 13 Going on 30 play into the romantic fantasy of kids growing up too fast, bringing childish enthusiasm into an adult world that is often starved for creativity and innovation.

Although these are perhaps the most obvious examples, they are far from the only ones. More conventional child-becomes-an-adult transformation stories include the television movie 14 Going on 40 and the Italian film Da Grande. There are also a wealth of comedies in which a young child swaps bodies with their parents; Vice Versa, Freaky Friday, Like Father Like Son. These stories are often geared at a younger audience, and so while there is some attention given to the adult in the child’s body, the fantasy element typically focuses on a child getting to enjoy the freedom of being an adult. There are also, to be fair, no shortage of stories about adults retreating into childhood, but it is typically into the older less-than-innocent teenage years: 17 Again, 18 Again!

Of course, these stories typically end with the restoration of the status quo. Inevitably, the children learn that being an adult is not all fun, and that it is probably best age the old-fashioned way, to reach maturity one day at a time. Indeed, some of these films even play the question of whether these children can return to their original status as a source of tension and anxiety. However, all of these films understand that adulthood is an inevitability, and acknowledge that maturity does bring its own opportunities and rewards that would be appealing to a child. None of these films suggest that adulthood is monstrous, even if they do imply that it is something into which a person must grow.

This makes an interesting contrast with more modern approaches to the relationship between adulthood and childhood. While many of those aforementioned films focused on the idea of “growing up” as something to be desired and pursued, modern cinema seems a bit more ambivalent on the point. Indeed, one of the big movements in modern comedy has been the emergence of the emotionally stunted manchild as the default protagonist. (There are a handful of emotionally stunted women, but they are in the minority.) While it might be possible to extrapolate this trend from earlier comic personas – Bill Murray’s emotionally immature protagonists or Adam Sandler’s underdeveloped leads – it became a definite trend in twenty-first century comedy.

Directors like Judd Apatow and Adam McKay codified this trend, often with the help of actors like Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen. Movies like Knocked Up, Anchorman and The Forty Year Old Virgin focused on grown men who had yet to complete the journey towards being functioning adults. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Superbad was that this tale of immaturity and juvenile behaviour actually featured teenage protagonists. Even when the approach wasn’t foregrounded – in films like Daddy’s Home or Grown Ups – it was a constant factor in mainstream comedy. Zach Galifianakis codified a subgenre unto himself with his work in films like The Hangover, Due Date and Election Day.

Pop culture has explored this trope in a number of different ways. Films have attempted to deconstruct and explore that trend, Step Brothers talking the concept to its literal extreme. Other genres have coopted it, such as the Duplass Brothers riffing on the premise with Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly in Cyrus. It could be argued that it informed media as diverse as Community (a classroom comedy starring a bunch of adults) and Brooklyn 99 (which is workplace sitcom set in a police department, juxtaposing the immaturity of its characters with the gravity of their work). In the twenty-first century, popular culture seemed to suggest that adulthood was not synonymous with maturity; that the boundary between adult and child was not as simple as it might appear.

As such, films like Shazam!, Unicorn Store and Little feel like an extension and a literalisation of this core concept. In these films, characters are not just behaving like children. In Shazam! and Little, they are actually literally children. In Unicorn Store, the character’s attempt to recapture her childhood is literalised through the construction of a paddock to hold the unicorn that she had wanted since she was a little girl. The characters in these films are no less mature than those featured in the wave of millennial manchildren comedies. Instead, the metaphor has just been rendered explicit. Instead of adults who never grew up, these are instead adults who are actively retreating. It is interesting to wonder why that might be.

There are a number of obvious reasons why this idea might have become so popular. Most obviously, the current cultural climate is particularly nostalgic. Nostalgia has always been a potent force, but it seems especially strong in the modern world. After all, the President of the United States was elected on the promise to “make America great again” and on the nostalgic memory of a country that probably never existed in the first place. Brexit is largely founded on the romanticised ideal of a return to the time when the United Kingdom was a global powerhouse. In this context, it’s worth noting that many millennials would have been children during the nineties, nostalgically remembered (correctly or not) as a time of peace and property.

Pop culture reinforces this sense of nostalgia. Nineties nostalgia is hugely popular at the moment, including revivals of concepts as diverse as Twin Peaks, Baywatch and The X-Files. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has indulged in that nostalgia with Captain Marvel. More than that, there those cultural critics who would argue that (in an aesthetic sense) the nineties never ended and that culture never actually moved on. Obviously, the political climate has changed – something that Captain Marvel captures relatively well, and with which The X-Files wrestled awkwardly – but there is a very tangible sense that culture itself has not moved on or let go.

Indeed, it could be argued that culture itself encourages and abets this arrested development. Popular culture constantly serves up nostalgic fantasies as mass-audience spectacle. Simon Pegg argues that contemporary pop culture has “infantilised” its audience. Studios are constantly offering fans sequels and remakes and reboots of beloved properties, to the point that it occasionally feels like cultural necromancy. With all of this going on, audiences feel little need to move on or mature, to let go of the pop culture associated with their childhood when they can clutch it like a comfort blanket. This is why fans rage so aggressively at perceived betrayals like Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

However, this sense of cultural nostalgia runs deeper than that. Quite apart from these literal transformative journeys back to childhood, there are many filmmakers taking a metaphorical journey backwards. The past couple of years have seen an explosion of actors-turned-directors producing movies about childhood. This is most obvious with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Jonah Hill’s mid90s, both of which explicitly and nostalgically evoke the director’s childhood as if trying to recapture it on film. Unicorn Store is Brie Larson’s directorial debut, and similarly invested in recapturing childhood. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is interesting for its contrast; it is a film about childhood very explicitly anchored in the present moment rather than the past.

That said, as deep as this theme runs through contemporary popular culture, it may not be contained to the cultural sphere. Perhaps this might be seen as a reflection of a broader social issue, reflecting currently political and economic realities. After all, adulthood is not everything that it is cracked up to be in the twenty-first century. To be fair, complaining about millennials has become something of a cliché. Of course, this something of a cynical right of passage, previously endured by generation x. Indeed, there is something to suggest that every generation hates every other generation. At the same time, there is something relatively unique about millennials as a generation.

Millennials are less likely to get married than earlier generations. Millennials are less likely to own a home than earlier generations. Millennials are poorer than earlier generations. Millennials are more educated than earlier generations, but millennials are less likely to be rewarded for career loyalty than earlier generations. Of course, it’s possible to attribute at least some of these shifts to broader cultural differences; a result of the different lifestyles that millennials have chosen as compared to their parents and other older generations. However, there is no denying that a significant number of these changes are a result of factors outside of the control of this generation. (Millennials would have been profoundly – economically and culturally – impacted by the Great Recession.)

As such, it seems fair to concede that it is harder for millennials to accomplish the milestones typically associated with adulthood by older generations. Assuming that conventional and old-fashioned markers of maturity include career stability or marriage or homeownership, adulthood is out of reach for many of the millennial generation. More than that, there has been no real effort to redefine adulthood in such a way as to acknowledge the gulf that exists. Instead, millennials are offered glib suggestions that they should cut back on avacado toast in order to afford a deposit on a house. Millennials are forced to burn the candle at both ends in order to stay afloat, leaving little room for the pleasures of adulthood suggested by movies like Big or 13 Going on 30.

If adulthood remains out of reach, perhaps childhood is more attainable. Studies suggest that millennials are more likely than earlier generations to live with their parents as adults. In Stressed Out, a song that The Atlantic described as a “millennial anthem”, this yearning was literalised, “Wish we could turn back time to the good old days when our mama sang us to sleep.” At the same time, millennials are not becoming parents themselves. It has been suggested that millennial consumers aggressively chase the trappings of their youth – such as polaroid pictures. It has become almost a cliché to paint millennials as a generation that refuses to grow-up.

Perhaps this explains the recent glut of films about the wonders and freedoms of escaping into childhood. Films like Little, Unicorn Store and Shazam! emphasise the freedom that children enjoy from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood. Unicorn Store parallels Kit’s effort to build a unicorn paddock with her adventures in the mundane working world. Little suggests that Jordan Sanders needed to become a child again to escape the barriers that she had erected around herself personally, professionally and even romantically. Shazam! allows its lead character to fantasise about the joys of being a superhero, only to realise that there is safety and security in his life as a kid surrounded by a family that loves him.

Like twenty-first century’s obsession with family, perhaps these recurring themes are simply an expression of broader cultural anxieties and shifts. Or perhaps they are just kidding around.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice! Still a fan Darren.

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