The “Coming of Age” of Coming-of-Age Films

Why aren’t we seeing movies about growing up in the twenty first century? Has film lost its ability to convey a collective experience? How does film hold up in an age of television and Internet? Rebecca, Ryohei, and Parth ponder the fate of traditional coming-of-age films and where the genre might be headed in the future.

Confession: Sometimes I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is ask myself what I’m doing with my life.

I’m 20, basically still a teenager. I’m a student at a top university, unsure of what to do with my time or my talents. The future is a complete mystery to me. Like thousands of others, I am in the process of figuring it out – going through the same rituals of growing up like so many before me have experienced.

I grew up on John Hughes movies. I wanted my friends to be the Brat Pack. I imagined skipping classes and going museum hopping; hoped that my crush would be waiting for me after school one day, leaning against the hood of his car; wondered who I passed in the halls I would’ve connected with, had I spent a day in detention with them. Some event would occur during these formative years, I believed, that would shape my life and mark my transition into maturity. Hughes’s films only received their due when he passed away in 2009; the Academy Awards didn’t just mention his name in their annual “In Memoriam” segment, they honored him with a seven-minute tribute, despite never nominating his work in the past. Why, now, did they feel that Hughes merited this lengthy homage? Perhaps because his audience, all grown up and some now leaders in the film industry, recognize that his work defined a generation during that crucial time of growing up, of coming-of-age.

The concept of a teenager historically emerges in the 1950’s, and with it came one of the first coming-of-age films, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The genre continued to develop in the 1960s, as those who grew up with the movies, experiencing its Golden Age, became adults and came to see their own coming-of-age as film worthy. Thanks to The Catcher in Rye, Beatniks, Vietnam, and the sexual revolution, it no longer seemed odd to see a well-adjusted, suburban, young man filled with inner turmoil and dissatisfaction. “Finding yourself” became an anthem of the times.

Traditionally, the coming-of-age movie centers on certain events that mature the main characters: losing one’s virginity and finding sexuality (Porky’s, Risky Business, Superbad, The Dreamers), forming meaningful relationships (Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Heathers), drifting along aimlessly (An Education, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Graduate, American Graffiti, Adventureland), maturing after a trip or adventure (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Almost Famous, Stand By Me), and experiencing trials of “real life” (The Outsiders, Boyz n the Hood, My Girl). While some of these teen movies have been relatively recent (appearing in the last decade), fare like most of the above examples just aren’t the norm anymore.

The films that teens turn to today for something to relate to seem, well, utterly un-relatable. Other genres like fantasy (the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Percy Jackson series), science fiction (Spider-Man, Scott Pilgrim and other comics-turned-movies), and dystopia (Hunger Games, Divergent) have cannibalized the coming-of-age movie. Movies with coming of age themes now tend to be drawn from other source material rather than original, often semi-autobiographical, screenplays. Aside from Noah Baumbach, a sort of hipster Hughes with his indie films The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha, few filmmakers seem interested anymore in the coming-of-age film for its own sake. My guess is the traditional coming-of-age movie, the growing up story we can all relate to, is dying. We may never find a successor to bear Hughes’ torch.

In television, the genre arrived later but perhaps fared better. Happy Days debuted in 1974, riding on the success of American Graffiti, but it wasn’t until the following decades that the genre really took off with shows like The Wonder Years, Beverly Hills, 90210, My So-Called Life, That 70s Show, and Freaks and Geeks. Television as a medium lends itself to the coming-of-age genre – both its serial nature and its intimacy allow viewers to grow up with its characters over time, watching their growing pains unfold in their living rooms. Post-2000, there has been a boost in the teen soap – The O.C., Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, Skins – but new series are also cropping up where the central premise is not primarily young people growing up but rather a dramatic modern event, like Secret Life of the American Teenager (teenage pregnancy), Pretty Little Liars (horror and murder), and Misfits (magic powers). Evidently, showrunners feel the genre needs some sprucing up.

So, then, what is to become of coming-of-age movie and television? Will there come a day when the list of fantastical creatures a teenager can be (witches, vampires, demigods, zombies, superheroes) finally will be exhausted? Will teen films become more and more like sex comedies, continuing the trend launched by Juno and Superbad? Will they ever take a break from the chick flick and move past Mean Girls, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and John Tucker Must Die? For my own selfish reasons, I hope so. As much as I would love to be a witch or a descendant of the Greek gods, I’m not, and a movie based solely on those scenarios is not my idea of coming-of-age. I look to the movies to help me figure out how to feel, how to react, how to deal with everyday life. Besides, I haven’t experienced my own Breakfast Club moment yet, and I need someone to write a sequel – with the characters as twentysomething college students.

– Rebecca

* * *

I happen to watch a lot of films on Netflix featuring LGBT characters and themes. I’m not sure how I feel about Netflix asking me, How often do you watch Hopelessly Romantic Foreign Gay and Lesbian movies? But my slight embarrassment upon realizing that my movie preferences were detectable by a computer says something about what we might look for in film. I was embarrassed because I didn’t even notice I was watching so many so-called “Gay and Lesbian movies,” let alone anything “Hopelessly Romantic.” The inherent limitations in any classification system aside (Why only gay and lesbian? What counts as “hopeless” or “romantic”?), it is clear that I was looking for a narrative that I could relate to, and that there was some thread common enough in these films that someone at Netflix predicted would attract a particular audience: me.

Though films that explore queer sexuality in adults are certainly not new (Paris is Burning, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Milk), the most recent movies of this kind are about young people—from early adolescence into their mid-twenties (Weekend, Blue is the Warmest Color, Keep the Lights On, Tomboy, North Sea, Texas, Out in the Dark, Heartbeats). Rebecca laments the decline of “relatable” characters and storylines, ones that she, as a twentysomething-college-student-young-adult, can relate to. By contrast, it would seem that, because of larger progressive currents in social and political acceptance of LGBT people and lifestyles, the LGBT coming-of-age movie is now being bolstered by people considering “their own growing up as film worthy.” So does the proliferation of LGBT coming-of-age films present an interesting counterexample? Yes and no. Problem is, with a few exceptions, no one watches them.

This isn’t to discredit the quality or value of the films being made now, because I certainly think some of them deserve to be watched. Other forms of visual media like television and Internet videos are offering increasingly higher quality programming and because most people watch everything on a computer, there is a general flattening of what we watch and how. Film’s decline isn’t so much a decline as a dilution, with other media quickly catching up.

Film lends itself to certain types of storylines, aesthetics, narratives, and character developments. Often I find myself relating to the characters in LGBT movies solely based on their sexuality. I might identify as gay but I don’t snort cocaine or come from a religious family, for example. Don’t get me wrong, it’s already noteworthy that movies have the power to portray other people’s lives in a way that makes them seem real and intimate—that is, relatable. And for people who construct their identities and see themselves as belonging to “groups” divided along lines of sexual preference, it can be heartening and inspiring to see others who, like them, have to negotiate their individuality in a society that isn’t ready-made to accept them.

What’s exciting now is the rise of the LGBT web series, a phenomenon that is overcoming, or at least challenging, the medium-related restrictions of film and television. Television may allow for a different relationship to be formed between the viewer and the narrative in its episodic form but networks still decide what is and isn’t acceptable to air; it can be especially problematic when you’re providing a platform for new voices.

But what exactly is a web series? It’s basically TV on the computer but with shorter episodes. Web series are often started by independent artists and actors with little to no budget, and end up on YouTube or Vimeo, meaning very little censoring and filtering of content. Because the shows are easily accessible and free, there is potential for reaching a wide audience. The Internet is an amazing resource of connectivity; for many LGBT people, it provides a way to understand and come to terms with their own sexualities even if they have never met in person someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, or asexual. LGBT “YouTube Stars” have been around for a while and have garnered sizeable followings (Arielle Scarcella, Davey Wavey). Web series are thoroughly exploring the expressive freedom of the Internet.

I first started with The Outs, a series about a group of gay men (and a straight woman) a few years out of college living in Brooklyn and going through relationships and break-ups, friend troubles and workplace stress—basically, a show about normal people who just happen to be gay. Whereas the feature-length film wants a drawn-out study of character or an in-depth development of sexuality (something it does well, which is why I won’t simply stop watching film), web series seem to take being LGBT for granted, allowing for a new mode of “relatability,” introducing characters who are “that twentysomething” figuring it out, but also aren’t straight. I immediately told some friends how good it was—though compared to film or TV the acting was questionable at times and the cinematography not incredible. It was forgivable because I realized that I had never seen a show of its kind, a show that didn’t feel gay or cliché, it was just a show that I liked to watch. A quick search led me to a ton of other content, including EastSiders, Whatever This Is…, No Shade, Words With Girls, Dykeotomy, and The 3 Bits. All of these shows, though catering to an LGBT audience, try to break from traditional notions of what an LGBT show is or ought to be.

It’s tempting to declare this rise of the web series as an exciting new trend that’s riding on the optimistic coattails of progressive, egalitarian attitudes, but the Internet medium comes with its own problems. As with film, many shows lean more toward pornography than narrative, and some shows (like Hunting Season, based on another Internet phenomenon, the sex blog) even offer uncensored versions at a price—it’s basically soft-core porn. Despite the creative freedom of the web series, there’s still limited accessibility when you consider who is making the shows. They’re mostly educated white gay men telling stories about other educated white gay men in New York (and the occasional token Asian, Hispanic, or Black guy, and even sometimes—gasp—a lesbian). But as the quality and popularity of the web series is rising, so is its experimentation by different groups of people trying to tell different stories. The beauty of it is that they can.

The death of the coming-of-age film is valid insofar as we don’t confuse it with the death of coming of age. So long as there are people there will be stories to tell, stories about growing up and being confused, about the passage to adulthood and learning what it is, living it out. If the LGBT web series trend is any indication, it might just be that we need a new medium, one deeply rooted in the way we grow up today: with technology.

– Ryohei

 * * *

Since I sometimes blog for the Huffington Post, social media inundates me with updates and articles from the online media house.  I mostly scan through the riff and don’t read many of the posts that come my way, but this August, there was one in particular that caught my eye.  It was an article by The Spectacular Now (2013) director James Ponsoldt listing the “25 Best Coming-of-Age Films.”  Immediately, I was struck by something: none of the films Ponsoldt listed out were created during the new millennium.  Was Ponsoldt merely giving a nostalgic nod to older cinema that was slowly fading from public memory?  Or was there really something to what Ponsoldt was saying—has there been a decline in the coming-of-age cinematic genre?

To me, the answer to the latter question is “yes.” Rebecca rightly attests to just how much the coming-of-age narrative has receded from the American public consciousness.  Indeed, although the recent coming-of-age film Mud (2013) builds on the themes of experiencing love and sexuality for the first time, maturing after an adventure, and experiencing the trials of “real life,” through its main character Ennis, the accolades it has received are a testament to how rare and noteworthy its realistic and delicate treatment of these motifs actually is.  Mud is the exception to the rule. I agree with Rebecca that the coming-of-age story is dying in film, or at least it kind of is.

I think that fantasy and science fiction have not so much dominated the coming-of-age film, as Rebecca argues, so much as they have picked up many of the pieces and have constructed within their own genres a small niche for it.  This was on display in many of the films that released this summer.  Stoker, Man of Steel, and KickAss-2 immediately come to mind.  And the recently released films The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Ender’s Game certainly speak to this genre from a dystopian, sci-fi angle.


To me, it is interesting how much some of these films want to be coming-of-age.  Stoker, a hauntingly beautiful psychological study, is particularly insistent about this fact.  Image after image is meant to remind us that this is a coming-of-age film.  India’s father gifts her shoes on each of her birthdays; now, on her sixteenth, she finally receives a pair of heels to show that she has grown up.  We witness what appears to be her first sexual encounter, first in the woods, and then relived in the bathroom shower.  India enters this film as an alienated, lonely girl at school and begins to form a meaningful relationship with her Uncle Charlie.  She finds a long-lost kindred spirit.

This film is truly about India “finding herself”— in arguably its best dialogue, Evelyn asks her daughter, “Who are you?”  Just one thing, though.  India certainly finds herself, but by the end of the film she’s gone from a creepy and disarming loner to a full-blown psychopath capable of murder.  The coming-of-age of the inhuman India looks much different than what we would expect from a coming-of-age film, and yet, arguably, it explores many of the same themes while simultaneously turning the logic of coming-of-age on its head.

manofsteelOr consider Man of Steel, its first half a slightly more conventional example of how coming-of-age has been integrated into the science fiction and superhero movie.  The film’s movement through Clark’s childhood traces the difficulty he faces in attempting to fit in on Earth and his eventual attempt to reach out and discover his alien heritage.  One of the central themes thus becomes Clark’s journey to find his role on Earth and establish a meaningful, trusting relationship with Lois Lane.  Although this narrative is explored in the context of Clark’s childhood and then his adulthood, largely skipping over his “formative” teen years, the exploration itself is about self-discovery and integration into society—two very important aspects of coming-of-age.

So, are the films our generation turns to “unrelatable?”  Perhaps, though I don’t think this is true of Clark’s character.  Quite to the contrary, Zach Snyder makes every attempt to make the superhero more and more human, something that dovetails nicely with every adolescent’s attempt to “fit in.”

For big-budget flashy science fiction or dystopian narratives, the coming-of-age narrative serves a distinct purpose. Here, the coming-of-age plot is a device borrowed to convey the intimacy and relatability innate in smaller budget teen films.  It takes a story, say about wizards in an arcane secretive academy, and makes it extremely relatable.  Ditto with vampires and Katniss.  It is a means to a marketable end.  This is true in Man of Steel and Stoker to an extent, but the coming-of-age story isn’t crowded out in these two otherwise very different films: it is well-integrated into the narratives and allowed to play on our emotions.  These films really embrace coming-of-age.

But as much as their characters speak to us about fitting in, these films don’t quite do so themselves.  They don’t fit the bill of a typical coming-of-age movie or even an updated version that professes to serve the same purpose.  Stoker certainly doesn’t: it uses coming-of-age story conventions to create an increasingly disturbing film in which we can’t decide whether we want to identify with India or not.  And yet—I can’t help but look at these movies as a sign that the coming-of-age genre is still alive, that it hasn’t been overwhelmed by sci-fi or dystopia, but rather that it has chosen a more subtle haven from which to explore themes outside the realm and reach of what we would normally expect from coming-of-age.  Is this really so bad?

– Parth

* * *

After this exchange of conversation, our brains were so stimulated that we decided to meet for coffee on a Friday afternoon to discuss all of the questions this correspondence raised.  As Ryohei munched on some chickpea-quinoa salad, Rebecca took sips from her thermos, and I savored my luscious hot chocolate, we began to see areas of common ground and come up with the “big picture.”

Based on the questions Rebecca raised initially, it is clear to us that “traditional” coming-of-age film, exemplified by John Hughes’ movies and Mud (2013), is becoming increasingly rare.  We think recent trends indicate that the coming-of-age genre can go down one of two paths.  It can be coopted into other film genres as a tool used to mask alien material with a veneer of relatability.  In these films (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games), coming-of-age has no place in the taglines or the takeaway; it is merely operational.

Or, it can serve a more prominent role. Today’s filmmakers are choosing to portray issues previously considered taboo.  It’s not that real-life coming-of-age has changed so much as its portrayal in film has widened in scope to explore themes such as mental health (Stoker (2013), It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)), abuse (Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)), and LGBT issues (Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)).  In the sense that such a development adds to the breadth of characteristics that define coming-of-age while continuing to portray real life, this second possibility is indeed refreshing.

This portrayal of coming-of-age is also reliant on the media through which we see it, and so both how we view it and what we look for are evolving.  Our cookie-cutter expectations about the genre won’t fit as they did in the past.  Coming-of-age film is not just a two-hour movie about a post-high school graduation road trip (American Graffiti (1973)), but can also be an online short about the modern break-up entirely on social media (Noah (2013)).

Screenshot from Noah (2013), an 18-min. short that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.
Screenshot from Noah (2013), an 18-min. short that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

Which path will coming-of-age take?  Is there room for a middle ground?  In the end, what we’re certain about is that coming-of-age, a genre all about “finding yourself,” is now in an ironic twist of fate, trying to find itself.