Not Waving But Drowning is a chronological look at growing up, formed from two different stories. The two sets of friends represent the American dilemma between what you have known and what you hope to know; the tear between longing for the past and the desire to explore.
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Young tween Justin Yoder, who’s known for his outgoing demeanor and wit despite being confined to a wheelchair, dreams to be like his athletic older brother and propels himself into the world of soapbox derby racing. It’s a field he’s sure he has a chance in. Unfortunately, he finds that because of his condition, not everyone is eager to see him compete.
Two brothers – one virtuous, one feckless – are in love with the same woman. She falls for Brother Wrong, carrying a torch for him even after he deserts her. But Brother Right remains steadfast and available. What’s unusual here is why the bad brother pulls his disappearing act. Mark walks out on wife Dianne after learning that the baby they’re expecting has severe genetic abnormalities. Dianne is nonetheless determined to bear her child, with support from her mother and Mark’s brother David, a pediatrician whose love for Dianne is unspoken but obvious. How do they cope with the challenges of raising this little girl named Julia?
Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is a down-on-his-luck New Yorker who inherits a Parisian apartment from his estranged father. But when he arrives in France to sell the vast domicile, he’s shocked to discover a live-in tenant who is not prepared to budge. His apartment is a viager – an ancient French real estate system with complex rules pertaining to its resale – and the feisty Englishwoman Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who has lived in the apartment with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) for many years, can by contract collect monthly payments from Mathias until her death.
Two rebellious youths, Ralph and Scott, find themselves struggling with adulthood as the Vietnam War rages. Feeling trapped in their small town, Scott battles with his conservative veteran father, Cliff, and Ralph deals with his desperately sexual mother, Ev. When tragic news arrives from overseas, the entire town, inspired by Ralph and Scott’s antiwar efforts, reevaluates its attitude toward the war.