Heads up – shattering of innocent dreams and cynicism ahead.
Oh to be 14 again, I’ve just discovered The Smiths and was full of hope thinking everything would magic itself better.
How wrong I was.
Coming of age films have been staple of teenage culture in the modern era with filmmakers trying to capture the archetypal transition from a naïve youth to adulthood, complete with all the twists and turns in between. While trying still to have the quintessential adolescent experience at the core, it was natural (and still is) for directors to put their own twist on this topic. These twists have been visible in films of late, such as Richard Linklater’s ambitious 13-year project Boyhood, Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, and Olivia Wilde’s LBGTQ+ focused comedy, Booksmart.
While these films, were met with critical acclaim and Hollywood nominations, watching these films (sometimes for the second time, after originally watching them as a hapless 14-year-old, who thought his life would end up like it did in these films), I scoffed throughout “for fuck’s sake, not this shit again”. Wait, how dare you insult these films, which formed the backbone of my personality during my teenage years?! I hate to break it , while beautifully crafted in terms of cinematography, this genre is just littered with clichés. It is like these directors lived some fantasy teenage life where the sun was always that perfect shade of yellow and soundtracked to Belle and Sebastian. In reality, most moviemakers (I will later address the ones that avoided my wrath) fail to capture what growing up is really like, instead, relying on familiar tropes and storylines that they know the audience will lap up (ah yes, capitalism will always prevail). What are these clichés I hear your ask? Well, carry on reading unless you do not want me to dismantle some of your favourite films.
Films of this nature tend to go down two paths. Firstly, they involve a character who is a misfit or socially distant from his peer group who magically befriends relatively cooler people and follows them in their trials and tribulations and thus tend to have a ‘normal’ adolescent experience by the end. The second path that directors often choose is that this main character chases his dream woman (who the filmmakers purposefully do not make the most popular girl in school, of course, they want this to be a realistic film), a manic pixie dream girl if you will. As expected, the moment he captures his soulmate, his problems are eroded. Circa most Michael Cera films in the late noughties.
Case Study: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
God, what a disastrous movie. Firstly Emma Watson’s American accent. Back to the main point, Charlie, an introverted freshman manages to befriend SENIORS. In what realms of reality is this possible? I can’t even find friends in my own year, let alone that of my elders. The relationship between Charlie and the other two feels rather forced, which ends up portraying Watson and Ezra Miller’s character acting as parental figures to him rather than being friends. Secondly a personal bugbear of this film, they listen to The Smiths (another cliché), but when ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie comes on they fail to recognise him. How can you know The Smiths and NOT BLOODY BOWIE? Do me a favour. Of course, by the end Charlie is dating Watson’s character and obviously heads off to college a less troubled person
I think the problems of this genre lay in the first surge of popularity of this genre during the late 1980s when John Hughes released films such Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink and most notoriously The Breakfast Club. These films essentially set the status quo (not necessarily good) of what a coming of age film should be and as a result, Hollywood has tended to fail to stray away from these parameters. While the introduction of characters from minority and LGBTQ+ background bring the story into the 21st century, the core repetitive narrative remains at the core of the film. Not everyone is an angsty teen that at the start of the film cuts of the world listening to an obscure indie band alone in their room. There ought to be films where problems of the protagonist get worse throughout the film or fall over in the pursuit of love. As mentioned above, the critical success of these films never lay in the actual plotline but rather in the cinematography and sometimes the soundtracks to these films.
Nevertheless, my cynicism fuelled rant must come to an end. Despite my negativity, this genre I feel will remain ever-present in the elite Hollywood film culture, as directors try to put their own twist on this genre and of course will have a loyal fanbase of people posting cute Instagram edits of these films set to obscure Mac DeMarco songs on their Michael Cera fan accounts. God, what a dark world we live in.
Below are some of my favourite coming of age films/TV shows that break the mould
- Superbad – A cult film, which did not receive the credit it deserved at the time. Three outcasts go on a voyage together reflecting the dreams of many a teenager boy, underage drinking (the secret ingredient is crime) and sexual satisfaction.
- Freaks and Geeks – Unsurprisingly another work headed by Judd Appatow. This ensemble cast follows the journey of Lindsay Weir and her younger brother Sam, struggling with their identities and finding comfort with their ‘freaks’ and ‘geeks’ respectively. Don’t want to give too much away, I’ll save it for later review. Captures almost perfectly the frustration of youth. Bonus – All the episodes are on Youtube.
- The Edge of Seventeen – A left-field pick. A raw and brutally honest portrayal of a high school misfit by Hailee Steinfeld who is in the shadow of her popular elder brother.