Pre-Millennium Tension

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, L for Leisure, 2014, 16 mm, color, sound, 74 minutes.

A LUDIC EARLY-1990s time capsule, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L for Leisure pays tribute to egghead volubility and good-vibes indolence. Set during 1992 and ’93, the film, lustrously shot on 16 mm, tracks a group of US graduate students during academic-year downtime in idyllic spots around the globe. Though these achronological episodes bear the hallmarks of Whit Stillman’s and Eric Rohmer’s movies, L for Leisure abounds with a buoyant goofiness those forebears lack. Similarly, the details deployed in this Gen-X chronicle—Crystal Pepsi, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, the flyers for the campus “AIDS dance”—are precise yet never fussy, a looseness that may be attributed to the fact that the directors, both born in 1982, were only prepubescents during the years covered.

Most of the cast of L for Leisure is made up of non- or semi-professional actors, including filmmaker Benjamin Crotty, playing one of two characters named Joel. (Crotty’s Fort Buchanan, a military-spouses melodrama whose script was sourced from various Lifetime shows, was a highlight of the most recent edition of New Directors/New Films; also shot on 16 mm, Crotty’s first feature suggests, in its humor and singular sensibility, an easy kinship with Kalman and Horn’s project.) Most lines are delivered affectlessly, making the pleasingly absurd dialogue sound even more so, as when Andie (Libby Gery), who’s writing her dissertation on tree spirits, explains her research plan to her friends: “I’m working with mediums and shamans. I’m also learning how to water-ski.” That seeming non sequitur then segues to several minutes of Andie and her pals practicing the sport on various lakes, their recreation set to John Atkinson’s mellow EDM.

The smoking or imbibing of various substances—cannabis, nutmeg, an excess of Thanksgiving pies, red wine chased with Snapple—aids the academics-in-training in their semester-break sloth without dulling their loquacity or the movie’s freewheeling rhythm. Likewise, the brainy twenty-somethings’ carnal activities are marked by even more, often hilarious talk. Postapocalyptic-literature specialist Sierra (Marianna McClellan) proffers her definition of handsy; en route to a ski trip in Vermont, the two Joels and some male colleagues are entranced by a quartet of sexually assured—and inquisitive—teenage girls they meet at a fast-food drive-through (“Guys, what kind of kisser are you, and what kind of kissing do you like?”).

For all of its sun-dappled idleness, though, Kalman and Horn’s film still has hints of ominousness. Spanning the final months of the Bush I administration and the first year of Clinton’s, L for Leisure reminds us of some of the catastrophes that occurred during that sliver of time: the 1992 Los Angeles riots (two Ph.D. pursuers ramble on via voice-over about “the race war”), AIDS hysteria (emblazoned on those bulletins mentioned above are the queries “Can you get AIDS from sports?” and “Can you get AIDS from kissing?”). Other calamities are foretold; spending Christmas vacation in Selfoss, Iceland, Tristan (Kyle Williams) clutches Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. At times it appears as if these unburdened scholars are committed to their own annihilation, blasting one another at a laser-tag arena called Future Warz. Kalman and Horn, in their own understated way, have updated the French actress Simone Signoret’s piquant remark that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”: Their wry, nimble film points the way forward for others who might also wish to look back.

L for Leisure opens May 15 at Made in NY Media Center by IFP in Brooklyn.