I have a distinct, horrified memory of a girl in one of my screenwriting classes freshman year nearly breaking into tears, trying to communicate to our teacher what it was she wanted to make; his proscriptive beats and arcs just weren’t doing it for her. She wanted to create something real, small, and true, something that showed how people really were; something, she concluded in near-hysteria, like Garden State. Zach Braff’s sincere blast of post-fame anomie—sincerely emotive, twee and stupid—was the first salvo in an increasingly deliberate wave of films that led the Sundance movie from amorphous arthouse genre into the multiplexes; the demographic had been pinned down, finally.
In short order came the exponentially more successful releases of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. It was only a matter of time before a major studio realized they didn’t have to spend their time digging and panning for gold, wasting their money on Happy, Texas or Hamlet 2. There is, of course, a big distinction between a “demographic” and a “generation”; the danger comes when the former doesn’t realize they don’t constitute the latter. There’s no such thing as a generational experience anymore, if there ever was such a monolithic beast; we live in an age of fragmented experiences, each segment trying to convince themselves that they’re the thing posterity will remember. Going into Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist I was thinking, “Time to watch my generation be cynically exploited by a multi-billion dollar corporation.” Then I realized that “generation” was wrong, and “demographics” are made to be exploited.
So here’s Peter Sollett, making surely one of the least-respected sophomore film of recent years; everyone who pretended to like him is gone. Sollett’s the real deal, and Raising Victor Vargas—an affectionate portrait of LES life among the less-privileged—was a real Sundance movie breaking out of the pack. There were complaints that Sollett had scrubbed down his Latino teens, making them less prey to sex, drugs and violence than reality would dictate. All kinds of issues here—Was Raising Victor Vargas a way to pander to middle-class audiences? Do we really need a Latino Boyz N The Hood?—were mostly trumped by people’s delight in the warm and fuzzies. When it comes to the privileged white hipsters of Nick and Norah, though, it’s a whole different ballgame. Shouldn’t privileged white teens have more time to angst out?
First things first then: Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings)—whose only real task the whole movie is to form the romantic bond predestined by the title—are, at best, completely incoherent characters, at worst, a cynical construction designed to sell shit back to the people who see themselves in the movie. For starters, there’s the problem of Nick’s nefarious ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), as evil a vamp the screen’s seen since Theda Bara, only younger. Nick lives in Hoboken and drives a Yugo; how in the world he got in the pants of the bitchily status-obsessed Tris (a private-school girl from Inglewood no less) is one of those questions that doesn’t bear thinking about too hard. But Nick at least has a center (at least as portrayed by Cera, whose schtick still hasn’t gotten quite stale yet; he’s funniest at his most inarticulate, and when he gets the temerity to actively flirt or present himself the modulation is subtle), being a band kid obsessed with music. Norah’s a whole other problem: poor little rich girl, dad a music mogul, what she wants or aspires to unclear. If she’s far from the magical pixie girl that makes movies like Garden State so unbearable, she’s not a person, just a boob-stacked straight-edge. What she does since she doesn’t have the traditional teen recourse to obscene partying is unclear.
So Nick and Norah are a couple of teens who really, sincerely believe that looking at another person’s mixtape or playlist is the window into their soul. This is obviously never true; there are people who care about music and people who don’t, of course, and that can tell you a lot about where someone’s priorities lie, but that’s it. Being in a band will get you laid as reliably as having a British accent; being into a band will not. Yet Nick And Norah is built around this untenable premise, and—with its casting, twee-indie soundtrack, and title—everything about this movie is a working demonstration for the existence of confirmation bias. Your ability to like, let alone enjoy this movie will depend on your ability not to feel the title searing your retina in pain. Prepare to enter the world of teenagers simultaneously all too self-aware of themselves and not at all aware of how they fit into a world their hermetic society has successfully sealed out, at least for the moment.
But Nick and Norah are too young to pick up on this, and besides there’s a lot of revenge-fucking that needs to happen. Nick needs to exorcise Trish, and Norah needs to have an orgasm, which is where Nick and Norah, in one of its biggest surprises, starts resembling Shortbus. It turns out that’s the one thing Norah’s lacking that Nick can give her, and that’s the movie’s out. Which is frankly a shocking development for a PG-13 indie-tween movie, one that immediately throws into sharp relief Garden State and Juno’s pansy-assed insistence on transmuting all sexual attraction into whimsical romance and deferred gratification. It’s not necessarily smart—for the most part, it’s a lie—but at least the movie finally finds a center. There’s other things happening here that are unexpected.
Sollett’s biggest problem, aside from a soppy love for everyone that pushes humanism into indiscrimination, is his insistence on endless establishing shots and bland nightscapes of NYC. That’s a double-edged sword though, because anyone who, like Sollett, was an NYU kid will instantly recognize the universe he lays out, one generally bounded by Union Square and Houston on one hand and 2nd and 6th Ave on the other. Shameful but true: it gave me giddy thrills of recognition, the kind I normally only get from watching movies set in my hometown of Austin. Sollett also has a deft hand in peppering scenes with one-liners from people barely sighted: e.g. the bikers yelling out at Cera before rapidly passing out of frame, all the little details that make a night out something that brings you closer to others rather than the star of your own social drama.
That said, we’re still talking about a movie where panning up Nick’s wall of Merge and Buzzcocks memorabilia counts as character development. Which it’s not, except on the solipsistic terms of its characters. So here’s the thing: Nick and Norah is, conceivably, every bit as annoying as any random Kate Hudson rom-com, only with different annoyances. Instead of upwardly mobile jocks and blondes who automatically conceive of romance as part and parcel of the good life, Upper East Side style, we have an equally shallow group of signifiers. This is the movie 16-year-old teens who call themselves “indie” deserve, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just a different kind of shallow. My inner 16-year-old was gratified.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.