Coming-of-age films enter a new phase with kids and lifestyles we haven’t seen
BY STEVEN ZEITCHIK “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself,” Francois Truffaut, director of the coming-of-age classic “The 400 Blows,” once declared. That preference applies nicely to the film genre Truffaut helped inaugurate. Since the French New Wave pioneer’s story of a boy adrift debuted in 1959, movies have been channeling youth with sometimes even greater power than childhood itself, often for audiences who’ve long left it behind. The coming-of-age film is timeless for a reason: It’s the one experience directors can be assured every moviegoer has gone through. It also has become a cliche for a similar reason: Since every filmgoer has lived it — and seemingly every third filmmaker has by now tried telling of it — the number of original stories has inevitably dwindled. Yet the last few years have brought a surprising rejuvenation. Beginning, more or less, with “Boyhood” in 2014, the coming-of-age movie has become vital again, focusing on either explaining a new generation of kids or telling fresh truths about older ones. This fall-movie season will see that trend
intensify. In fact it could be argued that the coming-of-age cinema moment we’re experiencing isn’t just a revival of a classic genre but a new form taking shape before our eyes — filmmakers depicting kids we’ve never seen, conveying stories we’ve never heard, arranging them in shapes and structures we’ve never contemplated.
Between now and Christmas, a group of movies are finding new melodies to describe how hard it is to grow up.
There’s the gentle allusion and unusual chapter structure of “Moonlight” or a boy at the nexus of cultural and parenting crosscurrents in “20th Century Women.” A subversively philosophical character anchors “The Edge of Seventeen,” road-trip dissolutions fill “American Honey,” and genre metaphors ripple through “A Monster Calls,” in which director J.A. Bayona uses a mystical tree to help a young British boy cope with the impending death of his mother.
The people doing the growing up aren’t the ones we’re used to from previous generations of coming-of-age films (consider John Hughes films like “Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles”) such as the gay black teenager in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” the surrogate family of vagabonds in Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey.”
Even documentaries are getting in on the act — a new movie called “Best and Most Beautiful Things” takes a quirky, legally blind 20-year-old young woman and, with tenderness and a lack of easy pity, tracks her attempts to find herself. Childhood may remain fundamentally the same. But the way we’re representing it is different
“I looked around and thought, ‘We are too overprotective of our kids.’ There’s a loneliness they live through, but as adults we hide from that idea, like our kids aren’t going through it,” Bayona explained. “But why? Kids aren’t hiding from it. Why should we? I think we should find a way to tell all the stories of children we’ve been too afraid to tell.”
The modern coming-of-age movie goes back to the 1950s. That period of postwar sorting — a time, in a sense, when America and Europe were themselves coming of age — saw not just “400 Blows” but seminal entries like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Red Balloon,” not to mention the publication of the genre’s ur-text, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Until then, the idea of making a young person the center of a film was relatively novel — outside maybe “The Wizard of Oz” and a few others, kids on screen had been little more than walking props. These new works both assumed and gave access to rich inner lives.
The strong 1980s
Since then the genre has ebbed and flowed. It would be hard to argue with the 1980s as a fertile coming-of-age period, what with “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies” and “Say Anything” and all those Hughes and Steven Spielberg films, along with Spike Lee and voices outside the white mainstream.
And even though Twihards would disagree, it would be equally hard to claim that it’s been more feast than famine in the years that followed. Sure, there was the occasional “Clueless” or “Kids” in the 1990s or “Mean Girls” in the early 2000s. But great films about young people have been harder to find. Not least among the issues was the ascent of irony, which if not the fatal enemy of the coming-of-age film can certainly provide a toxic blow.
The early 2000s were particularly fallow. Films about school-age children proved flimsy as transformation narrative, becoming romances or pulp that just happened to involve young people. Outside of the “Harry Potter” series it was slim pickings. Ditto for more recent melodramas. Works like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” took the tear-jerker and grafted it on to teenagers. It was the same familiar melodrama, just in younger bodies.
But “Boyhood” changed all that. It was one of the first contemporary movies that reacted to, or stood apart from, the trend toward irony and metaphor over realism. It explicitly drew from an actual child — followed from early grade school to entering college — lending newfound depth. And because it attempted to encompass the entirety of youth, it contained a scope the genre had seldom seen.
That same aesthetic fills “Moonlight.” Jenkins portrays a laconic but sweet young man in a rough part of Miami. The film begins in preadolescence, continues to high school and ends in the character’s 20s. Yet unlike “Boyhood,” it does without the yearly check-in, favoring a bold, snapshot approach.
“I wanted to make it less gradual and more stark,” said Jenkins. “You can really understand someone growing up by zeroing in on those moments. You can feel their maturation that way.”
If that film worked outside the bounds of a usual coming-of-age structure, “The Edge of Seventeen” flourishes within it.
Written and directed by firsttimer Kelly Fremon Craig and coproduced by Oscar winner James L. Brooks, “Seventeen” falls distinctly into a genre of an offbeat teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) in a suburban high school. And yet the way it unfolds is highly original.
The teacher character (Woody Harrelson) is not wise but reticent, at times even unsympathetic. The arc does not follow a student who falls prey to the obvious foibles and in fact comes to deep, painful realizations.
“The film was always about how to capture this girl and this moment in her life in a real way,” said Fremon Craig. “To do that you just have to listen really closely.” Fremon Craig conducted research at many schools to achieve authenticity, the indie filmmaker as journalist.
Meanwhile, Arnold’s “American Honey” (about hard-living and -partying traveling sales kids), Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” (a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage boy in Santa Barbara circa 1979 being raised by a complicated
mother), last year’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Marielle Heller’s look at a girl’s sexual awakening) and Garrett Zevgetis’ “Beautiful Things” (about the young blind woman) were able to achieve levels of realism because of their own research and ambitions. The movies are interested in depicting the point-of-view of the kids themselves — confused, free-spirited, raw, vulnerable.
In a shattering moment from “Beautiful Things,” lead character Michelle gives voice to her resentments, in the process offering a potential slogan for this new breed of coming-of-age movie.
“I know that people are going to think it’s weird. But it’s who I am,” she said. “Other people’s ignorance should not be my burden to bear. I should be able to be myself.”
It’s a unique time to make a coming-of-age movie. Rarely have people tried so tightly to hang on to youth, from Instagramming mothers to Botox clinics to the 2016 Pew Research Center study of millennials that found that, for the first time in the modern era, living with one’s parents was the most common arrangement for 18- to 34year-olds.
Of course, the coming-of-age storyline is predicated on the idea of progress, the character who moves beyond youthful folly to discover something about the world or themselves. That is, almost directly, the opposite of this cultural movement, in which people seek to return to a time before those lessons were learned. In a sense, as a society we’re trying to un-come of age.
Paradoxically, though, that may explain why we’re so interested in it: The directors are in a sense trying to process their own youth. Said “Seventeen’s” Brooks. “A lot of these filmmakers remember high school just enough.”
Many of these filmmakers, in their 30s and 40s, came of age during a time of strong coming-of-age-movies, bolstering their interest. “Every time I would think about what I’d want from a scene I’d think of the ferocious honesty of a ‘Say Anything’ or a ‘Breakfast Club,’ ” said Fremon Craig, 36.
Maybe the most potent factor is the recognition that, in a world where children are in such a hurry to grow up and adults so eager to be kids again, the coming-of-age movie doesn’t have to be about its usual subjects.
“I do think my movie is a coming-of-age story,” “20th Century’s” Mills said. “Except it’s the mother who’s coming of age.”
NOTABLE FILMS about growing up include, clockwise from top, “The Edge of Seventeen,” which unfolds in an original way. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” told of a sexual awakening while “Boyhood” showed the genre could defy convention. The new “Moonlight” centers on a gay black teen and “The Fault in Our Stars” provoked tears.
“SIXTEEN CANDLES,” top, in 1984 centered on typical teen angst. “American Honey,” left, about a hard-partying crew, is among the new gritty crop. “The 400 Blows” is a coming-of-age classic.