Family Longings

By Tim Winterstein

I’m on my way back from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Of the films I saw, one of the recurring themes was youth and growing up in this cultural moment. Two documentaries in particular addressed this theme from different angles. The first was Minding the Gap, about three friends whose youth is documented by a fourth friend. Bing Liu is clearly a talented filmmaker from very early on, as he films his friends skateboarding around Rockford, Illinois.

With none of their families intact, their friends become a sort of stand-in family. But it’s clear from their experiences that friendship doesn’t provide them all the resources they need to navigate adulthood. They have been set adrift by missing, negligent, or abusive parents. There is no necessary repeating cycle of behavior, but escaping the patterns set by parents is easier said than done.

The effects and signs of family disintegration depicted brilliantly in Minding the Gap are everywhere, from the proliferation of parenting and marriage books to the reinvention of nearly every aspect of adulthood. Some of that is simply due to the results of our fluid world in terms of technology, communication, and information. But for many of the answers and solutions and skills which would have been handed down to us by our immediate and extended families even two generations ago we now require YouTube videos, books, blogs, and podcasts.

The problem is obvious in its many facets, but it’s not clear that we’ve recognized the full extent of the consequences of fatherlessness, single parenthood, divorce, and the severe struggle for identity when a child doesn’t have both of his or her parents in the home. There has been in the 20th century an overt campaign to atomize the nuclear family and now we’re harvesting and eating the bitter, toxic fruit.

From another angle, the navigation of this not-so-brave new world is complicated by technology. The documentary Social Animals takes up that story from the perspectives of three young members of the Instagram generation.

There have been any number of films examining the effects of social media on culture, relationships, and communication. There have been studies carried out—though, perhaps, not nearly enough—on internet use and addiction. The stories of online bullying and suicides attributed to it seem to multiply. No matter what negative effects are noted, it seems we can’t or won’t give up the dopamine hits from checking our social media feeds.

But Social Animals isn’t just another plea for a decreasing use of technology. It recognizes some of the benefits that social media provide for people in various ways, without ignoring the negative and harmful aspects—things that previous generations growing up could not have understood.

There is nothing new under the sun; human nature doesn’t essentially change. There has always been bullying of one sort or another. But never could people do it so anonymously, quickly, and destructively. Emma’s story in the film is undoubtedly representative of young people who are not ignorant of the risks, but get pulled in to the cycle of social approval anyway. If someone wants to destroy your reputation, all it takes is a text and a share, and life can easily become unbearable. Whereas previously, negative female body image was affected by air brushed celebrities or depictions of perfect bodies on camera, now women have to deal with constant critique of their bodies and attractiveness by people whom they will likely never meet in person.

Kaylyn represents a largely positive interaction with social media, as she builds her “brand.” She was actually present for the screening at the festival, and she is very well-spoken and much more mature than she appears on the screen, since there was an interval of about two years between filming and completion of the film. Still, a person as a brand is a little unnerving, even if she seems relatively well adjusted.

Humza’s story is, in some ways, sort of a combination of Kaylyn’s and Emma’s stories in terms of the effects of social media on his popularity. He gains an Instagram following from his impressive photographs of New York and other parts of the world, but it’s also via Instagram that his detractors and enemies try to tear down what he’s building.

Both of these films reinforce the absolute necessity of careful and aware parenting. Positively, as Kaylyn’s following grows on Instagram, her mom (who doesn’t actually appear in the film) takes over the task of deleting the many crude and obscene comments. And while it’s still a balancing act for parents to both protect and allow children to mature, social media complicates the picture exponentially, because the harm may be concealed until it’s too late. The comments and actions are no longer simply out in the open or whispered in passing; now they are hidden on a device in a pocket or purse, invisible to those who may be able to do something about it.

I often have thought that I wouldn’t want to be growing up at this time. (I’m not sure I want to be an adult or parent during this time, either.) But the difficulty is compounded by the absence of intact and loving families, compounded again by social media. “A loving family” sounds like a cliché, but the effects resulting from its absence are available if we want to see them. Minding the Gap and Social Animals make available two more facets of an intricate and overwhelming issue, but maybe they both point us toward some ways forward as well.