Fort Tilden is about a road trip gone awry that reveals, in microscopic extremis, the shape of its participants’ lives. The film’s tone is reminiscent of a number of millennial comedies, particularly Girls, in its sweet-and-sour obsession with dramatizing repulsion as a roundabout way of mining an unexpected, qualified, yet legitimately felt form of empathy (Ghost World and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion would appear to be significant influences on certain millennial filmmakers). Call it transcendent meanness, whose trick is to capture the sadness and the defensive, over-intellectualized cleverness that resides within privileged characters who do and say awful things. Filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers prove prodigiously capable of navigating these choppy subtextual waters; their film elegantly evolves from an absurdist comedy into a remarkably wounded and uprooted story of friends who’re beginning to tire of their shared social cocoons.
Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty) are like a number of young, recently out-of-college women one might see at parties. Pretty, self-aware, aloof, though the observant will recognize that aloofness as insecurity and uncertainty. Harper and Allie essentially serve as organic, all-purpose security blankets for each other, and they’re beginning to resent their codependency. These sorts of pairs, male or female, always require a sexual alpha, the one who appears to be the more confident of the two, when it’s really the other who’s threatening to break away from the union. The superficial alpha in this case would be Harper, the sexually and socially adventurous one (though we get the feeling she’s hung up on a guy who may or may not have been her first partner), while Allie is often at the sidelines of social negotiations with boys, locked in her head, or at least playing that social role as justification for not engaging.
The opening Williamsburg party scene sets the stakes without appearing to, in a marvelous act of comedic exposition that sends the girls searching for the beach at Fort Tilden all the next day so as to find a boy they both claim, rather half-heartedly, to want to sleep with. The plot, like that of most road movies, is a rack on which to hang jokes and character portraiture. Harper calls herself an artist, but that’s about as far as she’s gotten with defining her pursuit, while Allie’s attempting to qualify for the Peace Corps so as to ship off to Liberia, the latter a revelation that her friends and acquaintances greet with hilarious skepticism. The reactions to “Liberia” often boil down to an implied suggestion of “laundering your white guilt’s one thing, honey, but that’s a stretch.” A hanger-on in a drug dealer’s group suggests that Allie should go to Portugal or something, the implication being that such a country would be more in line with the glorified, self-affirming vacation that he correctly takes Allie to be searching for. Someone else asks Allie if she wants to help people or be seen helping people—a sharp, astute zinger that scores a punchline on Allie as well as the deliverer of the sentiment, who’s just as hypocritical. (Allie at least bothers with a pretense of social involvement.)
Moments like these keep popping up, the actors and filmmakers achieving a sort of comic omniscience; jokes keep revealing facets of both the teller and receiver. When Harper boldly insults the sex appeal of her and Allie’s neighbor, saying that “fucking him would be like being trapped under a cold sack of mashed potatoes,” one’s not primed to laugh at the sad sack we’ve just met, who exhibits more decency than anyone else in the film, but at Harper’s panicky cruelty, which springs from Allie’s potential moving out, and at the originality of Elliott’s delivery, which allows us to see that Harper’s revising her put-down mentally as she goes along. This touch is characteristic of the film’s delicacy; it’s smart without making a show of it. Harper and Allie are often obnoxious, but their obnoxiousness has stature. The women are insufferable partially because they have the soul to understand they’re stuck and compromising both themselves and society. They know the boat of girlhood has sailed, which is never more apparent than at the heartbreaking climax where Harper and Allie actually find Fort Tilden.
This is also the rare American comedy that’s visually as well as verbally knowing. The directors often frame Harper and Allie’s quest in a series of medium landscape shots that serve to nurture the viewer’s protective feelings over the characters. We’re allowed to see the world that exists beyond the blinkered cellphone bubble that these millennials have unsurprisingly fashioned for themselves, just as we’re allowed to understand that this trip is a weird, haphazard attempt on their part to become a part of that world. Even the way that Harper and Allie stand in a frame is intensely poignant: in a slouch that’s designed to physicalize their fear to the public as brashness.
The ending achieves an unusual tone of rapt anti-nostalgia. The protagonists return to their apartment, which subtly resembles a cocoon (specifically a tree house), and they’re safely together for the immediate, indefinitely established haul. It’s a mark of the filmmakers’ talent and ambition as artists that we’re not allowed to know if this resolution is a good or bad development. This day could symbolically define the women’s lives, either waking them figuratively up or steering them toward long-term disillusionment in which they define themselves, with increasingly insidious permanency, as self-loathing outliers.