The Subtle Beauty of Coming-of-Age
Issue 16, Volume 111
When it comes to high school movies, we’ve seen it all. The lens of unattached, middle-aged, white men hardly captures the “high school experience” in all its awkward, clumsy nuance. Instead, movies like “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” (2018), “Geek Charming” (2011), and many more hinge entirely on the use of the same tropes over and over again. The rich mean girl gets a redemption arc. The introverted nerd catches the eye of the misunderstood school bully. The popular athlete is secretly crumbling under the pressure of always being perfect. It almost seems as if “the epic highs and lows of high school football” are the embodiment of every teenage summer movie. Almost.
What makes these movies so infuriatingly bland is their purpose. In an effort to appeal to everyone, they relate to almost no one. The beauty of coming-of-age lies in how it can connect with the individual viewer, subverting our preconceived notions of what a teenage movie should look like and providing commentary on the complexity of youth, all within two hours.
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017), for instance, received enormous criticism for being boring and overrated. The film explores the turbulent relationship between mother and daughter, and how love is defined in a relationship like theirs. For viewers without a similar relationship to their mothers, the plot is uninteresting at best and the message doesn’t resonate with them. But for those who do relate, “Lady Bird” is raw and sensitive. Gerwig said that she “didn't want the character of the mother to fall neatly into a category of either an angel or a monster, which is generally what [she thinks] happens with mother characters in movies.”
Rather than shove overdone plotlines and character archetypes down the viewer’s throat, Gerwig allows the audience to take the concept and turn it around in their minds so that they can decide the meaning of the film.
Perhaps the best coming-of-age movies are the ones that mature with the viewer. For example, at first glance, Marc Webb’s “500 Days of Summer” (2009) reads like a summer rom-com and nothing more. The narrative is told from the perspective of Tom, a hopeless romantic searching for “the one.” He is completely infatuated with his girlfriend, Summer, and is heartbroken and confused when she suddenly breaks up with him. As viewers, we subconsciously root for Tom. We sympathize with his awkwardness and his loving nature, so when Summer dumps him, we take Tom’s side.
By the end of the film, the audience is meant to realize that Summer may have been, to Tom, “the one,” but Tom may not have been Summer’s. We then wonder, “Who is the real villain here? Is there a villain?” Tom follows the same arc as the audience does and eventually comes to terms with the fact that Summer never wanted anything but a casual fling. “500 Days of Summer” is able to connect with a wide audience because of the fact that its characters feel real and believable. Viewers can see both Summer and Tom reflected in parts of their own lives, which gives the film authenticity.
We also see this authenticity mirrored in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), a classic amongst high school dramas. It’s a rarity that the writer of a book directs the film adaptation, but Steven Chbosky’s leadership on this film made all the difference. In an interview, Chbosky stressed the importance of depth in characterization, saying, “This movie doesn’t have bad guys and divas and attitudes, it doesn’t have that—it has people, like real people, and that’s important.” The whole story is told from the eyes of Charlie, a freshman with past trauma and virtually no friends. He observes the people around him living their lives while it seems his own is at a standstill. That is, until Charlie meets a group of friends who help him fight against his past.
What makes this film stand out from the rest is the way the characters are seen in the eyes of Charlie. The movie doesn’t draw caricatures of high school clichés to maintain a storyline, nor does it rely on the same plot devices to keep audiences interested. Every cast member fits the character perfectly, and each character, no matter their importance to the plot, is written with a complex, genuine personality.
Still, coming-of-age films shouldn’t entirely eclipse more lighthearted movies. There is a certain appeal in watching a movie you know will have a satisfying ending. “Mean Girls” (2004) and “Legally Blonde” (2001) are both undoubtedly iconic in their own right. The coming-of-age genre, however, is able to capture the subtleties of internal conflict and growing up in a way that is both refreshing and perceptive. Being able to relate to Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is what makes the film so enjoyable, and seeing Charlie’s isolated view of high school as opposed to the “nerd becomes popular” trope is more universally relatable. These films are able to achieve an emotional connection with the viewer, something even the most popular of movies fail to do.