The coming of age genre can be easily defined as simply movies about being a teenager, but in fact that is not what the genre is. The coming of age genre is a specific set of films about youth (most often teenagers) becoming adults through either experience, age or rite of passage, after which they are changed (or how they are treated by those around them has changed).
Over the course of film history there have been lots of movies made for teens, but not all of them fit into the coming of age category. The true coming of age movies that stick out in our collective minds are films like Stand By Me, American Graffiti, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Rebel Without a Cause. These are films we return to time and again to remember a time when we were coming of age ourselves.
Looking at teen films for trends in coming of age movies is a fascinating endeavour. Adolescence is a time of identity crisis, which is a universal trait in almost every coming of age film. Teens range around, adhere themselves to sports and social clubs or adopt physical traits like clothing or hair colour to set themselves apart from some, and include themselves with others. In particular, the films of John Hughes demonstrate a particular insight into the teen psyche as they try to navigate their way through the world of emotions that culminate in the high school experience. Hughes’ films, whether he wrote or directed them, dealt with coming of age in many ways, but especially with the growth of maturity and human understanding. For example Pretty in Pink, typically lumped in with teen films rather than specifically with coming of age films, looks at a teenager who is trying to handle a complex situation at home (her father’s inability to deal with her mother’s rejection of them both), while also trying to navigate the waters of a relationship that crosses economic barriers and trying to see the future of all these elements. Ferris Bueller, while being a generally likable guy, comes face to face with the decisions he makes and the way he treats people. Ultimately the audience doesn’t get to see what comes of those lessons, but the fact that he learns them brings him closer to adulthood.
Interestingly, the Hughes films don’t often deal directly with sexuality. Few, if any, of his characters find themselves wondering too deeply about sex, instead choosing to focus around the relationships sex might lead to, and yet coming of age is often synonymous with the loss of virginity, something that is handled vastly differently between the sexes. Where women are frequently depicted as innocents and wanting to wait for “the right time”, men are depicted as wanting to get their first time out of the way so they can start sleeping with more women.
Take American Pie for example. Tara Reid’s character Vicky seems to engage in a variety of sex acts with her boyfriend in order to keep him happy and prevent him from breaking up with her, while Mena Suvari’s character Heather barely discusses sex at all until she has an almost-too-perfect first time with her emotionally manipulative boyfriend on a dock. Alyson Hannigan’s character Michelle is completely undesirable – in fact, a complete last resort – until it’s discovered that she is not only sexually experienced, but sexually aggressive.
The male characters in the film seem almost possessed with the idea of having intercourse, which seems incredibly odd. Jason Biggs’ character Jim is obsessed with having sex, but can’t even get a date, let alone get to the point where sex might be a possibility. Instead, he seems to want to have a relationship, but will take sex instead, mostly at the urging of his slightly chauvinistic friends.
What’s fascinating about these overly sexed gross-out films is that most teenagers don’t report being incredibly taken with sex when they were teenagers. Obviously our teen years are a time of sexual awakening, but certainly we don’t devise complex plots to not be virgins by the end of high school. In fact most teenagers spend their time trying to avoid the topic of sex, since the whole thing just seems scary and elusive.
Of course there are examples of good, or at least more balanced, coming of age movies about sexuality. Superbad, the slightly-autobiographical film written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg about two teenage boys on their way to the last party of their final year of high school. As Seth (Jonah Hill) sees it, it’s their one last chance to have sex with girls who will then be shamed into having sex with them for the remainder of the summer, thus making them studs when they get to college. Evan (Michael Cera) sees it differently. He’s actually fallen for a young woman in his class and would like to be her boyfriend, not just get her drunk and have sex with her because he can.
While appearing on the surface to be just another gross-out teen comedy for men who just want to stick it in something, Superbad is actually a great film about both sides of the coin, and how these overblown plans to get someone to have sex with you might become a reality. It also does an excellent job of portraying the female characters as both sexually aggressive and able to make competent decisions about sex, seemingly understanding its consequences (beyond — *gasp* — maybe going to college a virgin).
In look at coming of age films overall, it’s incredibly important to ask who they are truly made for? Those currently in the teen demographic who are actually about to come of age or are they for those of us who have already come of age, passed those tests and lives through those rites of passage? Is it possible that coming of age movies really just nostalgia masquerading as films made for teens?
The answer seems to be a little bit of both. Certainly films are made for those in the demographic of the characters on the screen, but since the ways in which behaviour and decision making is depicted, one can only assume that they are primarily for those old enough to remember when they were young and made stupid decisions. Recent films like Easy A and The To Do List depict young women who are capable of making decisions about sex, while the occasional film like Dirty Dancing, Now and Then and The Tracey Fragments look at becoming an adult based on a young woman’s ability to handle “adult” situations (of which sex is one), however, by and large coming of age stories are told from a male perspective. Stand By Me, Almost Famous, Rebel Without a Cause, American Graffiti, Dead Poets Society, The Sandlot, The Squid and the Whale, Dazed and Confused and the list goes on.
Certainly men cannot be the only ones who reminisce about their teen years and we need some equal representation on screen in order to show ourselves, as well as our youth that everyone goes through the same things when we pass into adulthood and this should bring us together, not tear us apart.
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