For a brief period in the 1930s, after the birth of talkies but before the self-censorship of the Hays Code, Hollywood was fascinated by films about a certain type of man: the gangster. He represented a problem, the criminal life, but was also unmistakably a product of the system – a system in which the Depression took hold. At that time, theater attendance declined sharply and cinemas closed. Thanks to sound, the seedy ladies and gangsters and gunshots could now be heard; showgirls could now dance to a chorus set to music; you might be listening to innuendo and jargon right now. The results weren’t always great – but from about 1930 to 1934, they could get people to the door desperate for distraction.
The iconic movies of that time were the gangster movies like Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), about men who were mostly poor, with an immigrant background, and turned to a criminal life to earn money. They came into contact with “respectable” society through what they offered: Prohibition drink, gambling, worlds of underground pleasures and forbidden vices. As film scholar Robert Sklar puts it, “Hollywood’s mobsters were at the center of the disorder of their society—created by it, retaliated by it, and ultimately ended up as victims.”
So in the end, gangster movies were about the systems, institutions, and societies that create the gangster. Sklar says they have “condensed social conflict and disorder into the aspirations and dreams of their heroes.” Sitting in the cheap seats, you quietly got a taste of what was wrong with society.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we are living in a new era of the social realist image, in part because Hollywood is mostly in the superhero and franchise business these days. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find movies that try to tackle the rotten world the public lives in, from racism and gender-based violence to climate change and gun violence.
But the subgenre that feels most married to the gangster photos of yesteryear isn’t exactly about gangsters. Instead, it’s about young people who are trapped in larger systems that they have no control over and who don’t really know how to navigate. As often happens, three of this summer’s films tackle that topic from slightly different angles, each featuring Gen Z or millennial protagonists. At the center of the disarray of their society, created by the economic and social systems of contemporary America, they seek revenge, with moderate success.
Two of them are comedies, albeit very dark ones. Bodies Bodies Bodies, directed by Halina Reijn, centers on a bunch of rich kids and a friend (Rachel Sennott, Amandla Stenberg, Chase Sui Wonders, Myha’la Herrold, and Lee Pace) who spend a weekend together in a house owned by the parents. from another friend in the group (Pete Davidson). A huge storm rises, the power goes out, and as they hide in the palatial estate, they discover that one of them has kicked the can. From there it gets messy. Really messy.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is satirical and punctuates the one-man art of any highly privileged group of people who, on the one hand, wish to preserve their privilege and, on the other, speak in progressive idiom. (“Don’t call her a psychopath. She’s so skilled.” “You always turn me on.”) But the real protagonist of the film is the down-to-earth Bea (Maria Bakalova), an immigrant brought into the group by her new girlfriend. Sophie (Stenberg) and struggles to find a way to deal with these people. She finds that all their open-mindedness cannot really find a place for the reality of her life, her work and her experiences. And she literally has to fight to stay alive.
Bodies Bodies Bodies goes well with Quinn Shephard’s Not alright, about a 20-year-old aspiring writer named Danni (Zoey Deutch), whose attachment to social media and wealthy upbringing has long liberated her from anything resembling shame. What Danni has is a nondescript life, living in Bushwick and working at an online magazine; what Danni wants is to be famous. Also to let her colleague Colin (Dylan O’Brien) know her name.
One night, high and alone in her apartment with her guinea pig, Danni hatches a plan that involves posing herself in Paris for a week. But when a bombing takes place in real Paris, things go sideways.
In Not alright, the villain is Danni, but she’s also the protagonist – not exactly an anti-hero, but definitely not someone you want to advocate for. But the bigger villain is the internet brain, or perhaps internet fame, the kind of high-speed social structure that dictates your value through likes and comments, and more importantly, whether other important people recognize you. And just like the gangsters of yesteryear, the system eats her alive.
But the best of this trio isn’t comedy at all – it is Emily the criminal, directed by John Patton Ford and starring Aubrey Plaza in the title role, with some dramatic chops. (It’s worth noting that Plaza also starred in Ingrid goes westmaybe the ur text for the millennial malaise mini genre.)
Emily leads a life uncomfortably familiar to most millennials, or at least those of us without a family safety net to lean on. She went to art school, took out $70,000 in student loans, and then couldn’t finish school. She can’t get a well-paying job because of a stain on her permanent track record, so she has to work in catering while paying LA rent and hopes to find a way out of this mess. That’s how she finds her, thanks to a colleague. And it’s really, really illegal.
Emily the criminal comes closest to the gangster movie dynamic, drawing Emily ever deeper into the operation. But the film doesn’t glorify all that. Instead, we see her ravaged on all sides by a system that leaves her with virtually no other choice. There’s the boss who makes fun of the idea that she should have rights, since she’s just a contractor, with no union to protect her. There’s the woman who runs an advertising agency who gets mad at Emily for not doing an unpaid six-month internship, and says that when she her age, she was the only woman in a room full of men, and that Emily is just a spoiled brat who needs a paycheck. There’s the student loan company that only uses money for its interest, not its balance, a practice that leads to… ballooning, priceless balances. And there’s the hiring manager who lies to her about not doing a background check to set her up.
It’s a mess in there, and Emily the criminal plays like a thriller, precisely because Emily wants to put up with it less and less. What she wants is freedom. Whether she gets it depends on how much she decides to go with what the economy allows.
All three of these movies, interestingly enough, don’t target men; they are about women who are almost entirely unsympathetic, albeit for different reasons. (Not alright even has an ironic “content warning” for an obnoxious female lead.) They’re young, they live in a world dominated by a widening wealth gap and the fake reality of the Internet, and they’re desperate to do whatever it takes to move forward. come, each in its own way.
But basically these do what the old social realist images do: outline a dysfunctional social and economic reality by focusing on people who are somehow in the cogs of the system. By painting that image, they trap a generation on the brink. This makes them very similar to the films of the Depression, barely 90 years later. What goes around definitely comes back.
Bodies Bodies Bodies plays in theatres. Not alright streams on Hulu. Emily the criminal plays in theatres.