Coming-of-age movies are pretty self-defeating when you think about it. You see, the problem with any given one is that it’s usually pretty difficult to translate across time: “American Graffiti” doesn’t hold the same weight for an ’80s audience, just as Emilio Estevez and “The Breakfast Club” are a bit out-of-date for someone from my generation. By itself, that’s not too profound of a statement. Obviously any work of art from any single era has a hard time staying relevant for successive ones. That’s why it’s important for all art to contain that intangible and hopelessly academic concept of “universality.”
These kinds of stories are universal to the extreme. Whether you were born in 1990 or 1690, we all went through the same shit: the vigor and excesses of youth, its subsequent pitfalls and everything else in between. So if you’re a young filmmaker trying to create your own coming-of-age fiction, you have to either make a definitive commentary on a specific time you know the best (the more recent, the better) or try to nail a home run out of center field by making your story frightfully new. But while period commentary is usually easy to identify, it’s hard to find such a film that’s also a genuinely innovative approach to the genre, which is as old as narrative itself. In fact, these films are practically nonexistent.
The other day I watched writer Stephen Chbosky’s personal adaptation of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and I was legitimately disappointed by some of the responses I heard from other theatergoers. The general adolescent consensus (as it was with Chbosky’s novel) was overwhelmingly positive. Young cinephiles and laymen alike were quick to proclaim it a contemporary masterpiece: a unique examination of what it means to be a modern teenager in an increasingly modern world. I couldn’t disagree more.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the film. Our three stars Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller are brilliant together. Their chemistry shines in every scene, and even better, they use that chemistry to highlight a slice of high school life I didn’t personally see growing up. But homosexuality and the consequences of repressed sexual abuse are not profoundly original themes. Instead I’d say “Perks” is one of the first films to deal with such issues up front, rather than indirectly deal with them. But does that make the film a home run? More like a ground-rule double, or a triple at best.
This eventually begs the question: what are the definitive coming-of-age films? The answer here isn’t exactly straightforward. It really just depends on what you’re looking for: Comedy? Drama? Young kids? Teenagers? Gryffindor fourth years? That’s the thing about this genre: it stretches all over the map.
“Rebel Without a Cause” is a great film — one of AFI’s original Top 100. But even the immortal James Dean isn’t enough to get us over some of the movie’s odd quirks, many of which are time-specific products of the story’s examination of the shattered nuclear family. What about “The Sandlot”? It’s a delightfully entertaining sports comedy that in some part influenced all of the baseball analogies I’ve been using thus far. But even it falls afoul of laughability at times. So if we’re not going with “Rebel” or “Sandlot,” what about “Breakfast Club?” “The Outsiders?” “Stand By Me?” “The Graduate?” “Superbad?” And every other young adult film that’s ever been made?
No. No. No. No. No. — Infinitely and emphatically NO.
So then, what the hell? Are there any truly great coming-of-age films? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve named a couple of amazing movies that influenced generations upon generations. But not a single one of them is a home run.
And that’s just it! There are no home runs when you’re dealing with young people struggling to come to grips with their respective worlds. Sometimes you get lucky at the plate, reaching second or maybe even third. But you never can get all the way home.
Your subjects aren’t old enough: they’re usually just adorably insufferable little shits that get into all kinds of mishaps because they don’t know any better — aka they’re just juveniles (in body or mind or both), barely scratching the surface of physical and emotional experiences. But that’s okay. As is universal with most adolescents, it’s only a matter of time before they get their affairs in order. The home runs are out there to be had in innings to come, so thank God we get more than one at-bat per game. And if you’re going to take anything from a coming-of-age film, it’s precisely that.