River Phoenix forever! The bittersweet nostalgia of Gen X films

The recent news that Rooney Mara and her husband Joacquin Phoenix were calling their new son River had me feeling nostalgic for the original, the first River Phoenix.

River Phoenix, an outstanding Gen-Xer. Picture: Getty

River Phoenix, an outstanding Gen-Xer. Picture: Getty

The first River Phoenix was my generation's go-to actor. A Brando-level dedication to his craft in a Zac Efron-level package of unbelievable beauty, a stand-out in outstanding films like Stand by Me (1986), Running on Empty (1988) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), River Phoenix had a long and prosperous career ahead of him, cut short at his own hand by overdosing on drugs outside Johnny Depp's nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in 1993.

His choice of roles, in worthy but actually watchable films, helped my generation define how it saw itself. Generation X, so tagged by Douglas Copeland in his novel of the same name, came of age in the 1980s and early 90s.

Phoenix's character Danny Pope in the Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty establishes the position many Gen X-ers would see themselves owning. The child of 60s hippie activists (played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) whose political actions led to a death at a campus rally, Danny's childhood was spent on the run with his parents, and any chance at a normal life would come at their expense.

Today, Gen X-ers find themselves sandwiched between two sets of generations that take up so much oxygen, bringing up their Millennial and Centennial children and caring for their ageing Boomer parents, too busy paying their mortgages to be making an impact on popular culture.

Gen X-ers suffer from an excess of empathy, probably as a rebellion to our grandparents' collective self-diagnosis as 'the greatest generation", and taking on the burden of repairing our Boomer parents' planetary consumption.

You see the beginnings of this sense of rebellious identity in John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (1985), with archetypal Gen-X teenage characters emerging, to be repeated across hundreds of films for the coming decade.

The rebellious youth that looked so shiny on a young Judd Nelson, mirrored in films like The Lost Boys (1987) and Pump Up The Volume (1990), loses its patina in middle age.

Take Gen X icon Johnny Depp who embodied misunderstood weirdo on screen, most notably as Tim Burton's muse in a range of films like Edward Scissorhands (1990).

Off screen, his square-jawed smeared-eyeliner leather-wrist-strap schtick, with a Kate Moss or a Winona Ryder by his side, filled hundreds of thousands of magazine pages, aspiration porn to Gen X men. By 2020, however, the rebellious rocker act doesn't play well when you're engaged in lawsuits with your ex wife about who-pooed-in-whose-bed and your movie studio bosses allegedly asking you to kindly step down from your well-paying role to save them from further embarrassment.

Depp's one-time paramour Winona Ryder has also felt the unwanted glare of attention. Cancelled years before getting cancelled was a thing, Ryder in real-life was like Molly Ringwald's Clare from The Breakfast Club, rebelling from her own good luck and entitlement.

As Veronica in Heathers (1989), her dialogue would influence the way we all spoke. "How very" was the mother of all teenage dissociative verbal responses, witty wordplay for not engaging with whatever our parents had going on. Caught shoplifting, Ryder spent years in the pop-culture dog house before her recent career third act in the series Stranger Things.

Perhaps her rebellion was subconscious, against the industry that tried to market her Gen X status, shoehorning her into roles that didn't quite fit. Cut to a scene showing off her grating English accent in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).

In the 90s, though, she and pal Ethan Hawke as their characters in Ben Stiller's Reality Bites (1993) probably most defined how Gen X wanted to see themselves. Her Lelaina and Hawke's Troy have just finished college but have no job to go to and no big drive to meet their parents' expectations to go out and get one.

The term for this malaise would be defined by Texan filmmaker Richard Linklater with his film Slacker (1990), and perfected in his glossier Dazed and Confused (1993). Linklater would not only gift the world his stars Matthew McConaughey and Rene Zellweger, but his popularisation of the term "slacker" would be used alongside "grunge" as Nirvana topped the charts and Gen X-ers voices drowned out their Boomer predecessors.

A parody of the grunge and slacker ethos, Mike Meyers' Wayne's World (1992) would create a whole syntax of Gen X speak, 'Not!' Its cinematic brother-in-arms, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) remains "a thing" to this day, begetting this one of the first films of the COVID era to hit cinemas, Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020).

Richard Linklater, too, remains current, and has consistently. His series that commenced with Before Sunrise (1995) and followed Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from a chance meeting on a train in Europe and through two films and 20 years reflected how Gen X approached relationships, maturity and eventually middle age.

His "slackers", meanwhile, created Silicon Valley, and provided the tech environment that enabled the TikTok our Centennials love so much.

Some of the screen culture that fed us Gen X-ers hasn't aged so well. I doubt The Cosby Show (1984-92) will ever grace the small screen again, and while her show continues under a different name, Roseanne (1988-97, 2018) fell victim to cancel culture.

Gen X-ers growing up in Australia look back nostalgically on Nicole's frizzy hair in BMX Bandits (1983) or Kylie's frizzy hair in The Henderson Kids (1985), but as they grew, their ranks would include the filmmakers that would shape our own view of ourselves, led by Gen X stars Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

The small screen characters Gen X-ers were glued to, the arcade and video console screens, continue to sell to younger gamers. The Super Mario Bros might have made one of the most woeful feature films of all time, but still sell in the millions for Nintendo. Sonic the Hedgehog, meanwhile, cleaned up at the box office in the weeks before COVID closed cinemas.

This story Seeing Generation X on the screen first appeared on The Canberra Times.