Getting older sucks. Oh, sure, it’s a real gas at first; you can stay out later at night the more years you pack on, for one thing, and you find yourself acquiring new privileges even as your responsibilities remain more or less the same (meaning “nil”). Once you’ve edged toward the tail end of teendom, you’ve earned the right to work buy smokes, drive a car, vote in a presidential election, enlist in the military, purchase a car, rent your own apartment, take out loans and, bit by bit, take control of your destiny. Some of these perks are less groovy than others (though undoubtedly there are young’ns who thrill at the idea of being able to join the army without parental consent), but each puts you one step closer to full-fledged self-possession. It’s kind of awesome.
Then you push just past that tender period of human life, and slowly but surely you start to remember your innocent naivety with increasing fondness. You’ve finally taken that final step over the threshold separating childhood from adulthood and entered the next stage of your existence, only to discover that adulthood - and all the personal liability that comes with it - is kind of scary. That’s the space the characters in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows inhabit; they’re each a hair’s breadth away from entering their twenties, the sweet spot between being a kid and being a grownup where you know that you’ve nearly reached the end of your nonage but you’ve yet to fully accept it on an intellectual (or even primal) level.
Mitchell’s film is ostensibly one big giant STD metaphor. If you’ve heard mention of any of its forward buzz, watched any of the trailers promoting it, or read festival reviews (and we live in the Internet era, so odds favor the fulfillment of at least one of these outcomes), then you’re probably well aware of It Follows’ basic conceit: have sex or die. There’s this curse, you see, that kills those afflicted if they don’t pass it on to someone else by doing the horizontal tango. And there’s a catch: if the person to whom you transferred the curse dies before they pass it on, then its avatar (a shambling specter that can look like anyone you know and which only cursed folks can see) returns its relentless attentions to hunting you down. The movie’s protagonist, Jay, finds this out the hard way when the boy she’s been crushing on chloroforms her after they screw in the backseat of his car. It’s a decidedly ungentlemanly move, sure, but it’s a courtesy measure he takes because he cares enough to warn her about what she’s in for. So, all told, the experience is sort of a wash. (For Jay’s sake, let’s at least hope Hugh is a good lay.)
Jay spends the rest of the film avoiding fate and ignoring her mortality by living on borrowed time; she goes on an ill-fated getaway with her friends, and more than once she sleeps with boys to redirect the curse and buy herself a reprieve (however brief). Mitchell’s work can no more be divorced from questions of human sexuality than, say, The Thing can be divorced from the advent of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. But tucked within his overt, overarching themes, Mitchell has devised an equally strong throughline of emerging adult anxiety. These characters aren’t just running away from an invisible, chameleonic monster. They’re running away from adulthood itself and their own coming of age.
That’s not to say It Follows is a tale of innocence lost, per se. As we meet these characters, they aren’t innocents in the Biblical sense; Jay isn’t a virgin, Hugh isn’t her first sexual partner, and the only person who acts like he hasn’t lost his v-card here is Paul, the quiet, nice guy who sullenly pines for Jay throughout the film. No, this a story about staring maturity square in the face before hightailing it in the opposite direction. These kids aren’t quite kids, and they aren’t quite adults, but as soon as the follower begins hounding Jay they’re all suddenly forced to deal with the reality of what it means to be an adult in the most high stakes scenario possible. This isn’t about getting into college, finding a job or wrecking mom and dad’s car. This is literally about life and death.
So naturally everyone deals by waxing nostalgic about childhood, or by regressing toward the comfort of childish things. Hugh’s the one to start the trend when he and Jay go see a movie together. While waiting in line they play a guessing game that revolves around strangers in the crowd, and Hugh, to Jay’s surprise, picks a little boy out at the theater with his parents. His father helps the tyke sip from a water fountain as Hugh expresses his envy at the thought of having one’s whole life ahead of them. Not long after, he sees in the throng of people something that we can’t - the follower - and rather unceremoniously bugs out with a bewildered Jay in tow, periodically checking over his shoulder all the way. It’s such an abrupt moment that it’s a wonder Jay bothers to take him up on a second date.
When she does, she muses aloud over her girlhood daydreams of being old enough to go out with cute guys and drive aimlessly along northern roads in the pursuit of freedom. Jay, at least, is self-aware of the existential limbo she’s in, but even seeing that flight of fancy come to fruition she can’t help but wander down memory lane. It’s a pretty speech loaded with pretty ideals, and just as her dialogue draws to a close, Hugh knocks her unconscious, straps her to a chair, and explains It Follows’few but essential rules in brief. We’re tuned into Hugh’s seemingly irrational fear to begin with thanks to audience privilege, but even we don’t quite know what’s happening until this point. When the follower first appears to Jay, and in the wake of that encounter, the fear finally clicks. Jay, and Hugh, and whoever gave the curse to Hugh, and so on, are adults with adult problems and adult obligations they can’t outpace. Maybe the surest sign of this is the near-absence of any parental figure throughout the majority of the movie. We meet Hugh’s and Jay’s respective mothers, but beyond that these characters are on their own, as adults usually are (which might be the most terrifying realization of all).
From there, everything unravels. Jay goes to school, where the follower tracks her and chases her out of the building; she has her friends sleep over at her house to keep her safe, and again she’s cornered by the monster. Jay escapes by the skin of her teeth and heads to a nearby playground, where she keeps her eyes glued to the evening’s pitch black horizon. It’s significant that Jay chooses a swing set as her safe haven when the follower finds her at home. Instead of seeking out an authority figure, she installs herself at a spot to which she very likely has more than a few childhood memories attached. Jay’s destination is informed by the need for comfort rather than pragmatism. In another horror movie, the swing set represents a death trap. In It Follows, it’s a refuge for Jay and a beacon for her friends, who quickly find her and come up with a plan B.
Plan B, spurred by Hugh’s advice, means taking a trip to neighbor boy Greg’s family’s lake house, where the gang recoups pretty much by doing nothing. They laze. They hang out. They play board games and durdle around on the beach. Ostensibly the jaunt is meant to put a few miles between Jay and the follower, but again, what matters about the destination has to do with the personal associations the characters couch it in. Greg doesn’t open the doors of his folks’ vacation pad up to Jay, Kelly, Yara and Paul for reasons of protection; all told it’s little more than a cabin in the woods (and anybody with even minimal exposure to the horror genre knows how secure those are). No, instead Greg offers shelter to the group out of sentimentality, explaining that he used to hunt around the area with his father.
But eventually the follower locates them once more, and the cycle of terror begins anew. Jay can’t stay ahead of her attacker for long. Wherever she goes, it, well, it follows her, and only by confronting fate head on does she win herself respite from the madness. (Or does she? In case you’ve forgotten, this is a horror movie.) Up until that point, though, Jay and the rest of the characters try to ignore the unseen danger to her life by entrenching themselves in their wistfulness. They revisit their adolescence, whether by reminiscing out loud about experiences of their youth or by returning to the places that were important to them as children. Paul and Jay quietly talk about an embarrassing incident involving porno mags and getting the “sex ed” talk from their moms; she and Greg make amends over growing up lonely despite having lived across the street from each other.
Everyone is too wrapped up in the past to deal with the present, and when the present rears its ugly head, they react by retreating further into reverie. Adulthood is a scary place to be, but it just may be true that emerging adulthood is even more so.