While We’re Young is Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy of manners about the perils of maturation. This one stars Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller as a married couple, Cornelia and Josh, in their early forties who are faced with an identity crisis after their best friends have a baby. This highlights the fact that they never had and never will have children themselves due to infertility. To compensate, Cornelia and Josh begin a friendship with another couple in their early twenties, Jaime and Darby. While We’re Young follows Cornelia and Josh as they try to figure out where they belong since they don’t really fit in with either social group.
While We’re Young is both poignant and funny. Stiller and Watts play their roles with deadpan earnestness, and the film honors that earnestness. It doesn’t make fun of their midlife crises; it recognizes the challenges faced by middle-aged couples without children and believes that they’re capable of more than a kind of perpetual adolescence.
In the stand-out scene of the film, Watts’ Cornelia panics while attending a “mommy and me” dance class with her best friend and her best friend’s new baby. The parents hold their babies in their crossed-legs and dance along with them while a band plays corny songs; Cornelia holds her knees tight to her chest. Her womb is empty, so all she has to hold is herself. In a subsequent scene, Cornelia attends a hip-hop dance class with her new, younger friend, and though she is clumsy and awkward at first, at least she can dance with anyone standing near her instead of being left to dance alone.
Conventional wisdom says that couples without children are able to focus on their careers, achieve greater success, and have more fun traveling and recreating than couples who have kids to feed and clothe and take to school. Josh’s career hasn’t developed as he hoped though. While his wife deals with never crossing the feminine threshold into adulthood by becoming a mother, Josh deals with never crossing the masculine threshold of becoming a success. Stiller plays his crisis a bit broader than does Watts, but he’s still effective. Most of the film’s humor is due to his sense of timing.
If that plot and those crises sound a little cliche, that’s because they are, but the film’s cliches aren’t lazily presented in the plot or half-heartedly embodied by any of the characters. There is a kind of mechanism included in the plot to force some of these conflicts, but the film’s shining moments aren’t mechanistic at all. They’re emotionally truthful and character-driven. Furthermore, a film about being content with who you are and the life you are living, rather than wanting to be someone else and live some other life, needs cliches. Accepting the cliches is kind of the point. Being content is about being okay with being unremarkable.
For the Christian audience especially, While We’re Young is a reminder that we need to be mindful of the people in our midst who don’t fit into our standard social groupings. Protestant churches particularly emphasize the importance of family and go to great lengths to provide programs that either cater to families or help single people begin families of their own. Single people not looking to get married and married couples without children are important to God too, which shouldn’t need to be stated, but a cursory survey of church activities in my area and online reveals that it does.
Jesus said his only family were those people who did his Father’s will, Paul advocated for perpetual singleness, and we do a poor job supporting and loving the atypical members of our communities. Church is simply the regular gathering of people devoted to Christ who want to love God and each other together. God gathers elsewhere the people we don’t make room for in our normal gatherings. As fewer young people are getting married and more of them are waiting longer to have children if they have children at all, our churches are going to have to make room for them, or they will find church someplace else.
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