Wet Behind the Ears (Copeland, 2013)

I have not exactly been a fan of the “whiny millennials” genre, although my exposure thus far has been limited to one and a half episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls and the inexplicably crowned SXSW Grand Jury winner, Fort Tilden. That’s probably less than four hours of combined screen time, but when you are stuck in the company of those who hate everything about their lives of not-so-quiet desperation, it is long enough to feel like purgatory.

The good news is that Sloan Copeland’s Wet Behind The Ears (★★½) is the white sheep of this dysfunctional genre family. Sure, protagonist Samantha Phelps (Margaret Keane Williams) is overeducated and underemployed. And, sure, she feels like taking a job at her friend’s dad’s ice cream shop is more humiliating and demeaning than letting her parents support her. But at least she has the sense to remind her roommate that maybe they should wait on buying the $900 sofa until she can pay her own rent.

Wet Behind the Ears works best when Samantha gets slammed by her friends for trying or when it honestly shows how companies string along job applicants because…well, they can. When a snotty customer comes into the ice cream shop and asks for a taste of every flavor (without buying anything), the patron’s behavior is infuriating not because Samantha has a college degree but because she is a human being who isn’t being treated with respect despite her low-paying job.

But if the film gives Samantha the backbone to do some hard work and enough moral wherewithal to reject (eventually) some criminally gained easy money, it has a harder time honestly tying those qualities to her eventual success. Two job interviews, one at the beginning and one at the end, are similar enough to make us wonder if the only difference between getting a job and not is the perception of the interviewer. Samantha’s answers to the questions are no less superficial at the end, but because they are filtered through one high-profile success it is assumed that her patter is something more than a canned reply learned from a book.

In that way, Wet Behind the Ears is paradoxically both too cynical and too idealistic at the same time. It assumes that the business universe, even in a depressed economy, is entirely rather than just somewhat capricious, but it also assures the audience that virtue is, ultimately, rewarded. Its overarching message is that that there are no short cuts for hard work and determination, but then it will throw in a scene where Samantha changes her name to “Sam” on her resume and the interviewer comments that he was expecting a male. And for all of Sam’s early complaining about her expectations of employment being tied to her degree, the film never shows us how the successful project that eventually gets her hired was enabled or assisted by her education.

Even with all those clunky elements–the script really could use another draft–the film is much more enjoyable than its more lauded yet more annoying cousins. Like its protagonist, Wet Behind the Ears  is unpolished but still willing to work for our approval. The characters do acknowledge how difficult it is to be (young and) unemployed, but the film doesn’t wrap those acknowledgements in a most-put-upon-generation entitlement blanket. In Samantha, we finally get a millennial protagonist that we can empathize with rather than just pity.

Wet Behind the Ears is available on DVD beginning July 22 from Cinema Libre, and is scheduled to have a digital release in August.

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About Kenneth R. Morefield

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