The Top Eight Post-Collegiate Movies for the Aimless Grad

Movies Lists

The thing about college graduation is that you’re expected to do something afterward. As always, though, the movies are here for us. Young filmmakers have long exorcised those one or two (or seven) years after graduation, wherein caustic anxiety about the future leads well-educated twentysomethings to enter an extended period of uselessness on their way to whatever’s next. Thus emerged this talky cousin of the coming-of-age movie, which exists mostly to comfort new generations of grads and depress older ones. To mark the release of the canon’s newest title, Adventureland, here’s a quick rundown:

8. St. Elmo’s Fire(1985)

The trauma: Georgetown grads stew around D.C., drink, cheat on lovers and grow up to embarrassing music.
Sample dialogue: “How bad is it?”
“Severe. She might’ve finally exceeded the limit on her father’s Visa.”
How it helps: It’s very ’80s (only Brat Pack junkies need apply), but it has escapist charm, if only for the size of Demi Moore and Rob Lowe’s hair.

7. The Motorcycle Diaries(2004)

The trauma: A semester away from finishing med school, a fresh-faced Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal) takes off against his family’s wishes and travels South America by bike.
Sample dialogue: “I am not me anymore. At least I’m not the same me I was.”
How it helps: People like to argue over whether it’s responsible to make a movie this starry-eyed about Che Guevara, but for our purposes, Diaries is a pleasant addition to the travelogue subspecies of post-grad movies.

6. Reality Bites (1994)

The trauma: Gen X goes to the real world, with a college valedictorian (Winona Ryder) who films a documentary about her assorted slacker friends (Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo) who can’t hold down jobs after graduation.
Sample dialogue: “At the beep, please leave your name, number and a brief justification of the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma and we’ll get back to you.”
How it helps: It popularized the genius idea to use that emergency gas card your parents gave you to raise funds, and though it’s mostly a transparent romantic comedy, it goes down pretty easily. Also somewhat randomly marks the feature directorial debut of Ben Stiller.

5. Into the Wild (2007)

The trauma: Based on a well-known, real-life case, a recent Emory grad drops plans for law school, donates his life savings to charity and heads on a cross-country trip that ends with his quiet death in the Alaska wilderness two years later.
Sample dialogue: “I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here. Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness—give me truth.”
How it helps: Even if it ultimately feels like a cautionary tale, the movie is worth reflection.

4. The Big Chill (1983)

The trauma: After the suicide of one of their old classmates, a group of middle-aged friends from the University of Michigan weekend together and reconnect in surprising ways.
Sample dialogue: (at friend’s funeral) “Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”
How it helps: Full disclosure: Your correspondent attended U-M. But though the crew here is long out of college, they sort through the same neuroses as the characters in all of these movies, and there are hints of darkness that suggest starker years ahead.

3. Funny Ha Ha (2002, first released commercially 2005)

The trauma: Our resident mumblecore entry follows Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) through a series of stripped-down encounters with old and new acquaintances.
Sample dialogue: (to tattoo artist) “I should tell you, I’m a little drunk.”
“You don’t want to get it if you’re drunk.”
How it helps: It may not. The movie can be very funny, but mostly the life-as-it’s-lived, no-frills conceit encourages emotional exploration—never good for a recent grad.

2. Kicking and Screaming (1995)

The trauma: In the debut feature of writer-director Noah Baumbach, a group of liberal-arts types graduate and then sit around and lament a future they don’t bother to confront.
Sample dialogue: “Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t ‘been to Prague’ been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that ‘stop-shaving-your-armpits, read-The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor, now-I-know-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing.’”
How it helps: It both celebrates and satirizes that first post-collegiate year, and though it declines to wrap up tidily, there’s some comfort in that, too.

1. The Graduate (1967)

The trauma: In the undisputed king of these movies, a hyper-accomplished recent grad (Dustin Hoffman) panics at the prospect of his future and falls into an affair with the much older wife of his father’s business partner (Anne Bancroft).
Sample dialogue: “Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.”
“No, it’s not. It’s completely baked.”
How it helps: It helped define a generation long since embalmed by history, but the sense of longing for an alternative hasn’t aged.

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