GROWTH SPURT

Com­ing-of-age films en­ter a new phase with kids and life­styles we haven’t seen

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­EN­DAR - steve.zeitchik@la­times.com Twit­ter: @ZeitchikLAT

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.”

Cul­tural move­ment

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.”

David Born­friend A24

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.

STX En­ter­tain­ment

IFC Films

Sam Emer­son Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics

James Bridges 20th Cen­tury Fox

A24

“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.

©Univer­sal City Stu­dios, 1984

Fox Lor­ber Fea­tures

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