For some post-grads, the first few years following college can be difficult. Between finding a job you don't hate (let alone one in your field) to navigating a new world where friends don't live down the hall in your dorm, adulthood can sometimes be a lonely, stressful battle. The good news is that, for the most part, our culture has forgiven those in their early 20s for not quite figuring their stuff out. Maybe that's thanks to programs like Girls, Search Party, and Broad City, which reminded everyone that, in many ways, a 22-year-old is still very much a kid.
However, the world is not quite as kind to those of us at an age when we are already "supposed" to have this adulting thing down. There's a certain pressure to have your life figured out at 28 that there simply isn't the year after you can legally drink.
That doesn't make it any easier to carve out the path you want in life. In many ways, it's harder than ever: What if you decide you want to do something entirely different with your life? Is it too late?
That's what the new film Kate Can't Swim explores. In the movie — which was directed by Josh Helman and co-written with Jennifer Allcott — Kate (Celeste Arias), a writer, seems to have it figured out. She's in a long-term relationship with Pete (Grayson DeJesus), and seems excited at the prospect of moving with him to Seattle when he lands a cushy new gig. But unbeknownst to Pete, Kate is floundering: Is this relationship really what she wants? Is this life what she wants? When sparks ultimately fly between her and best friend Em (Allcott) during a weekend away, it's revealed that Kate might have no idea who she really is or what she wants — she just knows it's not the life she's living.
Refinery29 spoke with Kate Can't Swim executive producers Zosia Mamet and Evan Jonigkeit, who also co-directed scenes with Helman, about the new film, and why it's relevant to anyone having a premature "mid-life crisis."
What interested you about telling a story from someone who isn't brand-new to the adult world, as opposed to, say, the story of a recent post-grad?
Evan Jonigkeit: "Once people lose the sympathy of your newness to the 'real world,' people sort of have built expectations about what you’re going to do and who you’re going to portray yourself as... I think a lot of people that watch it have sort of come to that same crossroads and [are] forced to choose, 'Am I really where I want to be? Am I doing what I want to do?' and, 'If I’m going to change it, I need to change it right now,' because it's the time in your life when you have to start moving in a particular direction and going with the tide."
Zosia Mamet: "I also think it’s something that just happens in life, and I feel like it’s what sets up for a midlife crisis, in a way. It’s something people don’t necessarily want to discuss, but it seems like when you decide where you're gonna go for college and you decide what you're gonna study, that those are the huge choices, and once you choose those few things then you’re really on your path. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s this moment in your life where you’re on this precipice of real adulthood, and you choose the path you're going to be on, and it's a little bit of a 'no turning back' moment. I feel like it's such a scary thing we all grapple with, and we refuse to acknowledge it, and that’s one of the reasons I think there aren't that many films about that moment in time."
EJ: "Yeah, and I think there’s something to the fact that so often, especially when you’re with old friends, you're trying to recapture a period of your youth, and when that dynamic starts to change, once your friends are deciding that they’re not the same person they were when you knew them in your youth, that forces you to ask larger questions. You start to see age, you start to see mortality, you start to see a lot of things that people don’t deal with if they don’t have to deal with them. That’s why I think that this is interesting, to have a character essentially be forced to grapple with that, and if she weren’t in this situation maybe she would have a midlife crisis somewhere down the road."
Kate's relationship with Em starts as friendship, but ultimately the two have a sexual relationship as well. Does Kate have feelings for Em? Or is her sudden interest in Em a symptom of Kate's larger spiral?
EJ: "I think that’s the type of thing that we sort of want to be ambiguous. That’s the thing that is part of what’s interesting about the film, it's not having clearly defined lines between friendship, sexuality, the relationship in general, like what kind of a relationship it is. If I were being forced to answer I’d say that it is certainly probably leaning towards Kate taking advantage of the situation to try to help her escape. How much that’s rooted in her own questioning about her own sexuality and her own place in life and about how real their relationship was as opposed to now is? I think all of that is kind of up for debate, and that’s what is engaging about the film."
Do you think that the story could be gender-flipped? Do you think Kate could be a man and go through a similar experience, or is there something about this story that rings true for women?
EJ: "I don’t know, I think there is something about the ‘woman experience,’ and this is something that Jen and Celeste really talked about... I have many friends from high school and from college and they’re all great friends, but it doesn't come with the same sort of emotional connection because men, I think, are groomed from a young age to sort of stifle that emotional connection with one another, and women are encouraged to embrace that emotional connection. I think because of those deep-seated societal norms that it would be difficult for the same story to work."
ZM: "I think there’s something about that true, first best friend that you have as a young girl, that I think is your first love. It’s also because it’s void of the shadow of sex it’s so much deeper. It’s without any agenda, it’s a love without any bounds. I think as we grow older, so often as women we change, and those friendships morph, but there is this deep desire and almost like a need to maintain that friendship even when you know it shouldn’t be any longer. I feel like every woman sort of has this with their first best friend. It’s rare that relationship will maintain and sustain throughout your life, because so often we change so much from that age to our 30s, our 40s. There’s almost like a compulsion to keep it and to keep that type of passion there. I think it’s a really complicated dynamic that isn’t explored a lot. When those relationships start to disintegrate, which isn’t uncommon, it’s like the most intense heartbreak you’ve ever had.
We talked about that all the time on Girls, that yes, we had these amazing male characters, and yes there were love stories, but the real love stories were the ones between the four of us. That’s what we wanted to explore because we felt it was something that was under-explored in TV and film, was the incredibly complicated dynamics of true and deep female friendships."
Do you think that the recent buzz around films like Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and even Moonlight are opening doors for filmmakers to craft smaller, more intimate stories?
EJ: "Yeah, I think it’s part of cinema tradition actually. I think that for a long time there are filmmakers like John Cassavetes, who made these really intimate, slice-of-life stories that were made in a similar way, one that is about a group of artists coming together and being all in with one another until it’s completion. I think that the Duplass brothers have also done that really well and made things like that, and there’s also a filmmaker that I work with on the TV show Easy, named Joe Swanberg, and Joe Swanberg has a similar aesthetic and vibe... I think that films like Lady Bird, and Call Me by Your Name, and Moonlight, the ones you cited, are so beautifully executed, and had the sort of financial support and the trust in the filmmakers themselves to provide a sensibility to the audiences which I think is new and wonderful. I think it’s really exciting for film and for people. Moviegoers want to see something other than plot plot plot plot plot, they want to see what people are doing and how they deal with it."
ZM: "Give something they can relate to. I think that yes, cinema serves a purpose of escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think on the flip side there is also something we’ve lost the thread of for a little while, but like you said, is coming back. They want to see characters in films they feel they can see themselves in, not just a superhero. People who aren't perfect, people who are struggling, people whose wants and dreams are similar to those in the audience."
What does "adulting" mean to you? Do you think that Kate is doing it?
ZM: "That’s funny, we had some friends up to our cabin this weekend and we were talking about the same subject, about 'what does it mean to be an adult?' I feel it can kind of mean two different things, because I think that there are outward actions that fall under the umbrella of that term, and that to me is sort of what Kate is doing at the beginning of the film, to the outside eye, yes, she is adulting. I think in reality she is doing the exact opposite. I suppose to me it means being honest with yourself and stripping away the things you think you're supposed to be doing and choosing a life path that makes you happy and that you are gonna pursue wholeheartedly and with determination and an amazing work ethic and that you’re sort of no longer bullshitting yourself or the outside world. So in a way, even though she’s falling apart outwardly at the end of the film, it’s sort of the first adult move she's ever made, which is to be honest with herself."
EJ: "I think that like you’re saying, there’s a point in your life where you’re like, 'I don’t want the cheapest wine in the liquor store, so I’m gonna get a nicer bottle of wine, but I’m probably not gonna finish it. I’ll probably be in bed by midnight.' It’s like the confluence of those two things. I now do things that I thought were silly when I was younger, because they were interesting even though they were maybe a little boring to some people. I do them because I have some self-awareness that I didn't have before. I have a formulation of myself that isn’t based on everybody else's opinion of what I’m doing."
ZM: "Much more eloquently put. What was that quote you said at dinner the other night? About when you’re in your 20s?"
E: "Oh, I don’t know where I heard this, but, 'In your 20s you’re worried about what everybody's thinking about you, in your 30s, you don’t care what anybody thinks about you, and in your 40s you realize nobody’s been thinking about you at all.'"
Kate Can't Swim is available on video on demand now.