The Graduate and The Worst Person in the World: Same Story, Different Generation
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
What is adulthood? Is it something we decide for ourselves when we’re ready, or is it something that’s thrust upon us when we reach a certain age? Is maturity the same as wisdom, or is it a biological concept that comes alongside height and body hair? Are adults smart, or is everyone just trying their best, hoping that they’re on the right path but really having no clue? It’s these questions about adulthood and life that filmmakers have been trying to answer for decades.
While dozens of writers and directors have taken on the mantle of unravelling the mystery of maturity, I believe two films have fundamentally understood the transition to adulthood. Those two movies are Mike Nichol’s The Graduate, and Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.
The first interesting thing that both films do is follow a recent graduate as they navigate the muddled world of post-education life. This point in life is quite a few years past the technical age of adulthood, but it marks the proper transition better than any other milestone I can think of. It represents the severance from protection. You’ve been cared for by your parents, your friends, your classmates, your teachers, and suddenly that’s ripped away, and it seems like all you have is yourself. The Graduate uses unique framing to communicate this alienation. The opening scene of Ben on the plane is a perfect representation of post-education isolation. A blank expression, a complete disregard from the other passengers, a slow zoom, and a voice over the intercom saying, “We are now beginning to begin our descent into Los Angeles”. Truly with this opening scene, we do feel like we are beginning a descent. That fear and apprehension spelled out through Dustin Hoffman’s wordless performance communicates the anxiety of beginning the biggest chapter of life. Worst Person takes a different route but is still very effective. The film begins with Julie content with her university program. A voiceover begins and we see as Julie switches between programs, hairstyles, and jobs, until finally landing at her bookstore job where we begin the proper story. While more explicit than The Graduate, Worst Person conveys the security of being young, as well as the constriction of impeding adulthood. The ability to change your mind so flippantly is something that is only possible within the confines of youth, since everyone around you is there to help. Only once you leave do you realize that time isn’t infinite, and life is beginning to catch up to you. Both films begin with one key theme, anxiety. A breach from the comfort zone, an unwelcome invitation into a world of commitment and professionalism, it’s the greeting of the adult world. See this beginning as the crossing of the threshold in the hero’s journey, except this journey moves much differently.
If we were to follow hero’s journey model, the next step is the meeting of the mentor. Although in this case, the mentor isn’t a helpful wizard or a friendly teacher, it’s something far more radical. In these films, the “mentor” is an older person that the protagonist strikes up a sexual relationship with. In The Graduate, it’s Mrs. Robinson, and in Worst Person, it’s Askel. The protagonists latch onto these figures seemingly in a desperate ploy to find someone to guide them through this hellhole that is the adult world. Unfortunately, this is where the similarities with the hero’s journey end. What we come to realize is that these “mentors” are just as lost as the protagonists. Mrs. Robinson is locked in an unhappy marriage and seeks a way out of her mundane life. Askel is more subtle with his flaws, but we learn later in the film that he is someone who is uncomfortable with the concept of his own mortality. Instead of discovering guides, the protagonists come to the slow realization that even those they seemingly admire have no real grasp on life. As a result, these relationships end and they move on to younger, similarly rambunctious people, attempting to find the one thing they desire.
The main goal for these two is to find stability, mainly in career and relationships. Ben and Julie are completely lost in what they want to do and who they want to be, but they desire to find this out more than anything. As a result, they latch on to anything that makes even a lick of sense in their lives. For both, we see it through the older figure, the younger lover, and the irrational decisions. This is certainly a testament to their naivete, but to an extent, that naivete is universal. Nobody likes that void of uncertainty, so we take anything that can fill it, regardless of if it's temporary or not. We see Elaine and Ben together for seemingly only a few months, yet Ben is willing to drop everything and elope with her as soon as he can. Julie similarly ends her relationship with Askel after one night of flirtatious passion with a stranger at a party. The quest for new things to keep their lives stable never ends, and they continually try to finish it anyways.
This brings us to the final aspect of each movie, the ending. Both have powerhouse endings that hardly feel like endings at all. In a way, our protagonists are exactly where they started, clueless and aimless. This can easily be seen as a nihilistic perspective, lamenting the futility of effort, and giving up in the face of life’s numerous challenges. But these films are extra special because they don’t go this simple route of pessimism, they’re comedies. The Graduate ends with an iconic final shot that makes you laugh just as much as it may make you uneasy. Worst Person ends with Julie doing the same thing once again, another relationship ruined, but there’s so much hope at the same time. These endings are not resolutions as life does not have resolutions. Problems may be solved sure, and you won’t be unhappy forever, but sometimes you’re young and stupid, or old and stupid, and the route you took isn’t working out. That’s ok, laugh about it! Relish in how unpredictable and incalculable life is, that’s what these movies want you to do at the end of the day.
These two films understand that there is no equation to unlock life. No picturesque ending. No ride off into the sunset, no succumbing to the beast, just life, chugging along as always. Problems will arise, they may be big or small, but you can get over them. People will come and go, things will change, whether it be the 60’s or 2021. These films are timeless because no matter when, life is the same strange, incomprehensible mess for all of us, and we can all find some laughter and beauty within that.