Coming of age stories can’t easily be pigeonholed into just the teen movie genre. There’s so much more to a story than just a moody soundtrack that elevates it from “She’s All That” to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Not all teen movies fit the formula for a coming of age story, and although the protagonists are often teenagers, they don’t HAVE to be (particularly in modern society where #adulting is a thing). There’s a heavy and significant feeling after watching a coming of age story that is full of both hope for the future and sadness for a loss you didn’t even know you had experienced. Some filmmakers are gifted enough to create movies that function as both teen movies and coming of age tales. Those people inspire me as a storyteller to aim for a balance that resonates with an audience of all ages.
For anyone who may not be as familiar with what exactly makes a coming of age story, it’s pretty simple. You have a protagonist who is nearing the end of childhood, that protagonist goes through something profound and they are forever changed from that moment, having experienced growth. Sometimes it’s a big event that marks them; sometimes it’s actually quite a small moment.
To me, one aspect that separates the great coming of age stories from the average coming of age stories is specificity. Understanding the moment of change is critical to making it work on screen. Simple tends to work better, and some of the very best coming of age stories take place over very short time frame. Take the John Hughes’ classic “The Breakfast Club”. It has a very simple premise, 5 kids from very different social standings enter a Saturday detention at 7 AM and leave changed at the end of the day. The events of the day are not important; it’s the moments they share together that change them. One of the best successes in this film comes from the acknowledgement by Prom Queen Claire that when they leave at the end of the day, nothing has actually changed and they won’t be anything more to each other than people who shared a Saturday in detention. They might not eat lunch together, walk to class together, study together, or head to the mall to shop together. But they won’t ever be quite the same after that day they spent together in a high school library in Sherman, Illinois. It’s the simplicity of this premise and clear message that helps this film succeed as both an incredible teen film that embodies the 80’s and a coming of age tale that stands the test of time.
There’s also a reoccurring approach toward great coming of age stories that I love, and would probably best describe as “elevated mundane.” We saw this is in a recent film from 2014, “The Way Way Back”, a personal favorite of mine. A summer spent on the beach with his mom and her horrible boyfriend gives a lonely kid his first job and that experience gives him confidence that he desperately needs to move forward in life. No one particular moment changes him so much as the whole experience of the summer is the journey between who he was when they left the city and who he will be when they return. It’s a gem of a film that explores the difference between being alone and being lonely, standing up for yourself to your both friends and enemies, and family. Give it a watch; you won’t regret it.
Of course, there are classic coming of age films that shouldn’t be missed. I recommend “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), “Almost Famous” (2000), “Stand by Me” (1986), and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012) for anyone interested in a coming of age story for the ages. I find myself turning to these stories any time I need a reminder that maybe I should do something about the fact that I’m 26 and back to sleeping in a bedroom at my parents’ house while I finish my degree. A great coming of age reminds me that I can change my circumstances and myself many times in my life and I’ll only ever be better because of it. I’m most moved when I see a protagonist experience an unexceptional moment like it’s brand new. I will never tire of watching Earl learn that Rachel drew squirrels on her wall because he finally stopped to look around for the first time, or of seeing Will sit Russell down for the long awaited interview long after the article has been printed. I want to walk back to town with Gordie and his friends after their overnight in the woods, and hang out in an infinite moment with Charlie. Those moments, among many others, have given me so much hope, happiness, and even despair over the years. I dream of someday making my own addition to the genre by creating moments that challenge the protagonist and audience alike to change their viewpoints and appreciate the experience that is life.