Movies

What Makes a Modern Coming-of-Age Film – That Moment In


 

Over the course of the history of cinema, there have been some key genre staples. One of the most enduringly popular and meaningful is the coming-of-age film. Since 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, these movies have shone a light on the challenges, emotions, and experiences associated with reaching life’s milestones.

As generations have changed, so too has the coming-of-age film. Occasionally, this leaves audiences looking at such movies from the past with amusement rather than being able to relate to them. Nevertheless, some of the core examples such as Dead Poet’s Society and Stand By Me endure because they still show relationships and emotions with which audiences can connect.

So, what makes a contemporary coming-of-age film? Let’s take a look at some core hallmarks alongside examples of the current crop of the genre.

Authentic Depictions

Coming-of-age films of the past were entertaining, but they weren’t always what one might consider to be “authentic.” Often, they were exaggerated versions of reality. Indeed, we only need to look at examples such as Clueless and Grease to see how teenage characters of the genre were rarely depicted by actors under the age of 30. A far greater focus on authenticity is where the contemporary coming-of-age movies are very different. 

Where teenagers are depicted, not only are performers closer in age but the depictions are generally approached in a less exaggerated way. This is especially evident where the characters’ mental health is concerned. More modern teenagers in the U.S. are experiencing major depressive episodes than previous generations. There are also contemporary contributors to these challenges, such as peer pressure through social media. The stereotypical image of teenage mental health doesn’t ring true in contemporary storytelling and doesn’t help move the dialogue on the subject forward. 

As such, part of the commitment to authenticity is a greater focus on three-dimensional characters. Never Really Sometimes Always provides a nuanced look at the psychological complexities of a contemporary teenager navigating an unplanned pregnancy. Similarly, Lady Bird doesn’t show a single teen goal or caricatured struggle. Rather, it runs the emotional and social gamut contemporary teenagers face in their everyday lives. This doesn’t mean to say today’s coming-of-age movies have less comedy, drama, or horror than those of the past. It’s just that there is greater care taken to highlight authentic experiences.

Greater Diversity

Another aspect that was common in past coming-of-age films was a largely monocultural viewpoint. Many of the most popular examples of the genre were geared around the white middle classes of America. The level of privilege characters experienced — often living in large houses and concerned about getting into Ivy League universities — was not exactly relatable to the majority.

The current movies of the genre are generally reflective of how much more progressively aware our society has become. There are many coming-of-age movies centered around protagonists from marginalized communities. These films depict a cultural richness, but also the fundamental experiences that connect us all. For instance, I’m No Longer Here is an immigrant story ostensibly about escaping a life of violence, but also presents familiar challenges of teenage self-expression and discovery. Such movies are essential tools for encouraging greater empathy and understanding. 

It’s also important to note how this diversity isn’t limited to traditional teen coming-of-age movies. Filmmakers recognize that adults experience their share of growth and struggle, particularly surrounding mental health. Indeed, we’ve seen levels of insomnia, stress, and depression rise over the course of the pandemic. Having the tools to manage such disruptions in life can very much depend on maturity and experience. 

As such, there are various coming-of-age movies exploring how people aren’t suddenly fully formed at the age of 20. Another Round is especially effective in examining its protagonist’s realization that they’ve reached middle-age without really living. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is as much about the developing maturity of its adult protagonist as its teenager.

Contemporary Relevance

Coming-of-age movies of the past were often reflective of the time the films were made. In the eighties, movies such as The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink were structured around the material aspects of social status, while movies of the 1950s and 1960s were often products of post-war readjustment and the new experience of teenage rebellion. These are great movies, but they are artifacts of the time. 

Appropriately, modern coming-of-age films are more relevant to contemporary challenges. We’ve already touched on the depiction of mental health, but many delve deeper into the current concerns of gender issues and LGBTQ+ experiences. Moonlight is an emotionally rich story of a young gay man’s journey of self-discovery. It also provides an unflinchingly honest look at the challenges still faced by many like him today. 

We also find the stories come from more contemporarily relevant cultural sources. In the past, many coming-of-age movies, such as The Graduate and To Kill a Mockingbird, were adapted from novels. This still occurs today, but we’re also seeing adaptations of graphic novels. Blue Is the Warmest Color and Persepolis were both first produced in illustrated formats. Utilizing such contemporary sources provides storytelling from a perspective that is very specific to the “now.” Perhaps this is where we will find movies in the genre progressing. Each generation gains material on the relevant issues from its most popular artforms.

Conclusion

coming-of-age movies give us a snapshot into the moments of life associated with change. Today’s movies in the genre tend to be less reliant on caricatures and strive for more authentic depictions. There is also greater diversity from both cultural and stage-of-life perspectives. One consistent feature of the genre is how the filmmaking changes in ways that are contemporarily relevant. These films are likely to remain popular and will progress with the generations whose journeys they strive to explore.



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