Inventing nostalgia: the plot device dominating film

If I could remember the year 2003, I imagine I would feel nostalgic for such a magical time in history. Every “it” girl, from Ashley Tisdale to Paris Hilton, rocked jeans with a rise lower than George W. Bush’s approval rating. 

The song of the summer was “Hey Ya!” by OutKast, and consequently, everyone shook it like a Polaroid picture. “Finding Nemo” made waves (get it?), and one could enjoy it without thinking to himself or herself, “Wait… why don’t we like Ellen DeGeneres again?” 

Fortunately, in the last few years, writers and directors set more and more movies and TV shows in the early 2000s, so anyone can experience a group of young men hearing “Mr. Brightside” for the first time and unanimously concluding that it is the best song ever written. At least, I assume that is what happened in the noughties. Look no further than “Saltburn,” the movie that everyone loves to never watch with their parents. “Saltburn” follows a scholarship student at Oxford University and his infatuation with a charismatic and rich classmate who invites him to spend the summer at his family’s estate. The plot covers themes such as ostentatious wealth, privilege, Jacob Elordi, obsession, desire and Jacob Elordi. Director Emerald Fennell made what many describe as a 2006 period piece, sending audiences back in time to when side bangs, popped collars and Abercrombie reigned supreme. 

As dark and twisted as the film may be, it is visually appealing and sonically captivating, romanticizing a time before social media became inescapable and pandemics and inflation dominated news cycles. 

It is easy for anyone to fall in love with the English landscape and pub antics; in fact, it is hard not to. 

It does not matter whether the viewer was a young, attractive European aristocrat in 2006 or even alive; we all want a piece of what the wealthy student has but cannot appreciate. The noughties nostalgia is critical for the efficacy of delivering the film’s message, used as a vehicle to fall in (and out of) love with the characters. It is just close enough to understand the socio-political dynamics and yet far enough to forget the less idyllic parts of the decade. So while Fennell builds the film upon the early 2000s, it is not a commentary on the early 2000s. 

It is beautifully and simply harnessed as a tool to craft a world on the periphery of reality, one that audiences want but can never have, which is part of what makes the disruption of that universe throughout the film so unsettling. 

While Fennell’s “Saltburn” effectively disrupts nostalgia, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film “Lady Bird” creates nostalgia. 

Set in Sacramento, California in 2002, “Lady Bird” follows a teenage girl in her senior year of high school as she navigates the college application process, friendships, financial issues and a contentious relationship with her mother. Again, the film relies on the fashion and political events that were emblematic of the time, but not necessarily in a positive way as Fennell does with “Saltburn.” Gerwig opts for an “anti-nostalgia,” exacerbating the awkwardness of teenage years with bad clothes and warranted but cringeworthy counter-cultural conversations condemning the War on Terror. 

The titular character Lady Bird faces injustice, betrayal and growing pains, all building up to her dream to leave Sacramento and move to the East Coast. 

However, when Lady Bird finally escapes Sacramento, she realizes that her problems transcend location and time, and she begins to have a sense of kindness for her family and hometown. Here, Gerwig does not let audiences forget that the early 2000s were not as pleasant as hindsight may lead them to believe, but then reminds them why that discomfort of growing up was so important, regardless of when it happened. 

Unlike a true period piece, films set in the early 2000s today have the unique challenge of being nostalgic for those who experienced the time but still relevant to people who did not. The movie needs to match the trends of the time but still be trendless, it needs to consider the politics of the time without being about the politicsbut most of all, it needs to highlight a conflict that could happen at any time in history to a member of the target audience. 

In “Saltburn,” that was a desire to belong and for someone to love them. In “Lady Bird,” that conflict was a quest for identity in the midst of often strained relationships. 

Perhaps those of us who were not conscious enough to experience the “Harry Potter” craze will not be able to appreciate the nods to popular culture references in these films, but if that were the point of the movie, then it would not have very nearly the same impact. 

The time period is purely a platform upon which to develop narratives that anyone can relate to, regardless of how similar or dissimilar their lives are to an opulent twenty-something, an edgy girl from Sacramento or any other combination of characteristics.