The most prominent theme in The Graduate is not wanting to wind up trapped in a world that isn’t right for you. Benjamin Braddock is one of those people who was raised with the expectation he would follow in his parents’ footsteps rather than be his own person. His father is a successful business man, so of course it’s assumed Benjamin would naturally want to go down the same road. Benjamin’s father seems absolutely shocked by the notion that Benjamin might not want that for himself. Note that at the graduation party, Benjamin doesn’t seem to have a single friend his own age there, only his parents’ friends and business partners.
Benjamin doesn’t know what he wants out of life yet, he just knows he doesn’t want to live his father’s life. He resists being pushed into that world so strongly that he spends much of the movie not going anywhere at all. Although there are lines of dialogue addressing Benjamin’s aimlessness, The Graduate also does a brilliant job of conveying that feeling without words.
Most notably, during the opening credits, we see Benjamin in motion without actually getting anywhere. As Benjamin walks through the airport, he steps onto a motorized walkway. If the camera stayed in one place, Benjamin would be moving across the frame from right to left. Since we read from left to right, seeing something move from right to left tends to feel a little unnatural. But since the camera moves to keep Benjamin in the far right side of the frame, it creates the feeling that he’s like a fish trying to swim against the current.
Later, as Benjamin tries to enter the hotel after calling Mrs. Robinson, he opens the door only to have a long line of older people walk out, blocking him from getting in. Again, here’s Benjamin trying to move against the current. In this case, he’s literally facing an onslaught of people who are probably the types of people his parents aspired to be when they were his age. It’s worth noting that after the line of older people cleared, a handful of younger people hurry in, heading in Benjamin’s direction.
My favorite scene in The Graduate is the montage of Benjamin emotionlessly moving through his existence of floating in the pool, shutting himself off from his parents, and Mrs. Robinson. A masterpiece of match-action editing. The montage opens with Benjamin idly laying near the center of the frame. He keeps getting up and moving around, but no matter what he does or where he goes, he just keeps ending up right where he started — laying still in the middle of the frame.