'Generation Startup': Film Review

Courtesy of Generation Startup
A handful of post-college workplace adventures, bundled up with feel-good optimism.
9/30/2016

Cynthia Wade and Cheryl Miller Houser follow recent college grads who go to work with tiny new firms in Detroit.

Beginning with the surprising assertion that "entrepreneurship among 18-30 year-olds is at a 24-year low," Generation Startup focuses on the efforts of a half-dozen youngsters to buck that trend in a city that needs all the starting-up it can get: Detroit. Beginning their 17-month observation on the ground but relying increasingly on self-shot video diaries as the doc goes on, directors Cynthia Wade and Cheryl Miller Houser offer a film that often feels like reality TV. Still, on TV Startup will speak to many young viewers who are struggling to figure out not just where to make their talents useful in the world, but what those talents are in the first place.

The film's subjects are participants in Venture for America, a non-profit that places recent college grads in jobs at startups around the country. Wade and Houser find six of these youths in Detroit, where their jobs entail everything from clearing debris out of abandoned houses to helping direct grant money to local do-gooder organizations. Some are stereotypical self-starting hustlers, some seem just to have grown accustomed to achieving in school and decided this was a logical next step.

Most soon have doubts about their choices, given the long hours and uncertain rewards of startup culture. One fresh recruit, working for an alum of the VfA program, thinks he has signed on with a sure thing, only to see the business — Banza, a food company making a gluten-free pasta substitute from chickpeas — threaten to fall apart when its first commercial batches turn to unappetizing gruel. Another finds her calling not in the company that hired her, but as a matchmaker between young women and the established female professionals willing to mentor them.

Inevitably, some will wind up feeling exploited. One is the first employee of an outsourcing company, and quickly finds himself overseeing phone manufacturing at four Chinese factories. He appears to be indispensable, but when the company expands, his place in it doesn't.

There's enough variety in the workplace settings here to keep us interested, but the doc's chronology isn't the smoothest: We make a big leap or two in time, and must piece together the major developments that happened while we weren't watching. It's as if the filmmakers set up their storylines and waited until a point at which life more or less lived up to the optimism they intended to deliver. The success rate here may not reflect the ratio in the overall startup world. But how are you going to get promising kids to start businesses if you just show them failure?

Distributor: Long Shot Factory
Production company: Creative Breed
Directors: Cynthia Wade, Cheryl Miller Houser
Producers: Cheryl Miller Houser, Brian P. Egan
Executive producers: Susan Margolin, Lauren Zalaznick
Director of photography: Boaz Freund
Editor: Kimberly Pellnat
Composer: Eric V. Hachikian

Not rated, 92 minutes

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