Actual People captures actual truths about the ways that young people behave.
Kit Zauhar follows up her promising short film, Helicopter, with an equally talky debut feature. Actual People is an episodic chronicle of a failed graduation, as Riley (Zauhar) finds her life — or her hopes for it — melting away. Across the end of her school year, friends abandon her, her professor gives her a failing grade, and she loses her apartment. Riley struggles to separate the genuine alienation that living in New York causes from her tendencies toward self-pity, and the audience is put through each excruciating part of the process.
This setup suggests the type of meandering, post-college-comedy that is often tagged with the terribly unfashionable “mumblecore” tag, but maybe Actual People scans better because Zauhar doesn’t have the Duplass Brothers’ penchant for cloying sentimentality and sickening music, or Joe Swanberg’s inability to compose a shot. Maybe it’s because the winking cynicism of those millennial mumblecorers is here replaced by earnest Zoomer despair. Zauhar’s gloomy frames have a rigor that makes the semi-improvised dialogue instead pass as part of a precise schema.
The occasional cut to cell phone footage will remind the viewer of the film’s limits, with portrait-mode clips of Riley and friends cavorting in The Big Apple. Zauhur’s montage here illustrates what a whirlwind college can be, and how empty one might feel on the other side of it, but these clips can’t avoid cheesily distancing the audience from Riley’s plight. Her torment of isolation might remind you of Hong Sang-soo’s women, but in the sustained litany of misery, Zauhur achieves something closer to Rohmer’s The Green Ray, to whose Béatrice Romand the curly-haired Riley shares some resemblance.
In one of her worst embarrassments, Riley’s nefarious, probably alt-right ex-boyfriend appears out of nowhere to offer the olive branch of friendship, but she sees him as a controlling braggart. That she is reading Miranda July’s The First Bad Man as he appears may be on the nose, but it’s no worse than the character-detail-through-book-covers you will spot in HBO’s The White Lotus. Really, Riley pines for the hunky Leo (Scott Albrecht), whom she hooks up with in the film’s early scenes. Though he seems gormless, she is attracted to their shared status as Chinese-Americans.
Zauhur weaves race commentary through this and a number of other scenes where Riley is intellectually dismissed — is it her, or her race, she wonders. And a climactic act when she returns home to visit her parents in Philly adds another level of complexity to the pressures, expectations, and economic ease that she navigates. One might roll their eyes at scenes where students roll their eyes at the thought of a night out in Brooklyn, but Actual People captures actual truths about the ways that young people behave.
Originally published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.