Before We’re Nothing

While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach, 2014

“Maybe the point is that we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t important.”

At a certain point in our lives we are all faced with anxieties about aging. In fact, it often seems like, regardless of our age, we are constantly trapped between feeling too young to be wise and too old to be free. In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, this dilemma is presented from differing angles through two different couples.

Cornelia and Josh (Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller) are a pair of middle aged and middle of the road New York filmmakers, trapped between their personal aspirations and the aspirations of the society that surrounds them. Should they be focusing on career, family, both or neither?

Into this uncertainty drifts the carefree and passionate young couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), an idealised vision of youth, all fancy hats and jazz dance providing a counterpoint to Cornelia and Josh’s world of bills and babies.

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Jamie (Adam Driver) injects some youth into the life of Josh (Ben Stiller)

Josh has reached a point in his life where he has to decide his own direction. Rather than follow societal expectation to settle down, compromise his art and become a father, he decides to rebel and renounce social norms. This challenge to society is epitomised in young Jamie’s freewheeling approach to the world.

Rather than becoming more digital, consolidating his music collection from CD to iPod, Jamie relishes in building a large vinyl collection. Rather than using his smartphone to answer a puzzling question, Jamie prefers to struggle with his own memory.

Such rebellion against the norms of society, and defining of one’s own freedom is key to existentialist philosophy. 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger highlights for us the importance of living “authentically”. In his notoriously impenetrable masterpiece “Being and Time”, Heidegger asks us to remind ourselves of the fact that we are alive.

This may seem like a rather obvious suggestion, but as Josh and Cornelia sleepwalk through their lives, they seem barely aware of their own existence. They are so ingrained in their daily routines that it is almost as if they are asleep on a treadmill, relentlessly going through the motions. Josh’s own artistic goals are trapped in a similar existential limbo, never allowing him to complete his latest documentary. In fact, it’s almost as if Josh fears completion of his work because it is what he is used to. Without the relentless editing and re-editing of hours of footage, he will have nothing to do with his time.

Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), endlessly confined

Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), endlessly confined

Heidegger suggests that we take a step back and acknowledge what he calls our “dasein”, that is, ourselves as existent beings. Only through understanding ourselves in this way can we truly express any kind of freedom to define our own meaning and purpose in our lives.

As Josh begins his existential quest, he follows the apparent freedom and authenticity of his younger compatriot Jamie, a character who seems to constantly appreciate his own freedoms and rally against society. However, as the film develops we being to recognise Jamie as trapped by the same fear of change that stifles Josh. He is controlling and manipulative, not allowing for anything to deviate him from his grand plan to achieve acclaim as a filmmaker.

This approach, as well, for Heidegger is inauthentic. Jamie, much like Josh, is constrained by a desire to live in the shadow of his heroes. He only wants vinyl because it symbolises a former “golden age”. This is further highlighted by the faintly ridiculous conversational tic that he has picked up to say “see?” at the end of every sentence, apparently without irony, like an oblivious pastiche of a 1930s gangster.

Jamie lives in a world of carefully sculpted and manufactured “cool”; a world that is entirely not of his own making. And Josh buys the lie. Josh wants the same post-modern self-referential effortlessness that Jamie exudes, perhaps because it symbolises for him an opposite to his restrictive boring life.

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The truth is, of course, that both Josh and Jamie have not really found any authenticity. The closest either of them come is in the final act when Josh attempts to unmask Jamie as a charlatan. He finally realises that he shouldn’t pretend to be something he’s not, and instead should lay things out on his own terms.

The final scene, however sets a different tone. And without giving too much away, perhaps the lesson we are to take away from this film is that no matter how far we try to be free and independent, we will always inevitably be drawn back into social norms. Our purpose can extend like an elastic band, but it will always snap back in line with how society wants us to be.

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