The only part of the title that is relevant is ‘Um’.
One probably expects a film starring Keanu Reeves would be filled with action, but aside from one scene (two if you count watching him eat an entire cupcake), Generation Um is a slower character-driven film that plays off Reeve’s cool, calm, and collected demeanor. Mark Mann’s feature debut is a day-in-the-life snapshot of three flawed friends in New York City, but because the characters themselves are uninspiring and uninteresting, the film is as well.
The film begins on the morning after a night of partying as an escort-service driver named John (Keanu Reeves) drops off two of his chatty escorts, Violet (Bojana Novakovic) and Mia (Adelaide Clemens), at their Lower East Side apartment. While the two females are looking to sleep off the wild night, John takes a long stroll around the city. He aimlessly wanders from a neighborhood bakery where he enjoys a cupcake to a pawn shop with cameras in the front window and then back home to his rundown apartment. John carries himself has a rather gloomy fellow, but he seems to be in deep thought as if he is at a crossroad in his life.
Everything suddenly changes when John seizes an opportunity to steal a video camera from some people at a park when they are not looking. Now that he is equipped with a video camera his gloomy demeanor fades and it sparks a sense of purpose inside him that previously did not exist. John is completely infatuated with the camera and immediately uses it to capture his walk through the city park. Before long he turns the camera towards his two escort friends to document their lives.
The transition from being just a film to being more of a documentary-within-a-film is undeniably more interesting, despite the fact it feels mostly contrived. John instantly becomes a documentary filmmaker and the girls allow him to film their private life without any hesitation. However, this does allow for a completely different view of the characters because we discover intimate details about themselves and their past. The problem is that their lives are really not all that interesting and there is no real reason why the audience should start caring about them at that point.
Even though it was a welcoming change to see Keanu Reeves in such a small indie film, I cannot help but wonder what he saw in the film to begin with. The logical answer is that he saw something in the script that the film simply was not able to achieve. On paper Generation Um probably sounds more ambitious than it plays out to be. But regardless of the film turned out, his performance was effortless despite playing a frustratingly impenetrable character. Reeves does a good job at not stealing any scenes. In fact, he does the opposite by preferring to be behind his camera rather than speak in most scenes.
There are a lot of things that go wrong in Mann’s film, but what stands out the most is how incomplete it feels. Far too much time is spent watching John eat meals and not enough time explaining why he lives with his younger cousin or why the $75 birthday check from his mother has “medication” in the memo line. Generation Um presents itself in a way that is open for interpretation, but there is no real motivation for a viewer to construe anything.
The saddest part about Generation Um is that the most authentic part of the film does not appear in the actual film itself, but rather in the footage during the ending credits. That is because we finally see John open up just a little bit by cracking a smile and joking around with his friends, a small breakthrough that never actually happens in the film. Generation Um brings little to the table; very little emotions, nothing very meaningful or even particularly interesting to say, and it fails to explore the portrait of any generation as the title might suggest. The only part of the title that is relevant is ‘Um’.