Director James Ponsoldt was 16 when he first saw Lloyd Dobler stand on Diane Court's front lawn and declare his love for the blue-eyed beauty who was both out of his class and out of his league. With the help of Peter Gabriel's lyrics and John Cusack's blaring boom box, Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" had just rocked his world.
"It changed my life when I saw it, it genuinely did," Ponsoldt said of the 1989 cult favorite. "I totally fell in love with Diane Court [
Now Ponsoldt, 34, is hoping his movie "The Spectacular Now," the adaptation of Tim Tharp's teen novel about a freewheeling party man who meets an atypical "nice girl," will have the same effect on a new generation of moviegoers, one more accustomed to a world of fantasy and superheroes where growing up takes a back seat to surviving alien invaders.
"The Spectacular Now" is one of several coming-of-age movies this summer made by directors inspired by filmmakers of the 1980s — Crowe,
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts viewed his ethereal, image-heavy tale
As for Ponsoldt, "The Spectacular Now" could be seen as a follow-up to
But in contrast to the 1980s, when coming-of-age movies and romantic comedies were mainstream fare, today's tales of growing up and figuring it out have been relegated to the low-budget indie scene. That's an advantage, in a way, for filmmakers, who can experiment more freely since the budgets are relatively small, but a disadvantage for mass audiences, who may have to look harder to find their personal stories on the screen.
"At a certain point you stopped seeing yourself as a teenager in movies — unless you're a vampire, unless you have super powers," said Ponsoldt. "But what about the ones where it's just me? The purpose of good storytelling is to make yourself feel less lonely, to make yourself feel less alone, and you need that when you're 13, 15, 16. You need those movies, and they have not been made. I think this is something of a call to arms."
Lords of the flies
In "The Kings of Summer," which was released in May, three teenagers frustrated with their confining family lives set off to live in the woods despite being woefully ill-equipped to do so.
Vogt-Roberts, 28, plays with tone, splicing together ethereal, lyrical images with conventional scenes of teen comedy to give the classic story line a fresh coat of paint — picture a mix of Crowe and Terrence Malick. The director feels the movie serves as a commentary on the issue of masculinity in 2013 via entitled protagonists suffocating under the thumb of overbearing parenting. His teenage boys are thrilled to live off the land but find themselves cheating and sneaking over to a nearby fast-food chain to fulfill what they can't do on their own.
"Much of this movie is about grappling and wrestling with what masculinity is for the kids raised generations after the 'Stand by Me' kids," said Vogt-Roberts, making his feature film debut after working in television and shorts. "We are not men. We are a generation of wusses. Those kids could actually [survive in the woods]. Our kids are faking it. What does that mean?"
In "The Spectacular Now," which opens Aug. 2, Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, the extroverted party animal destined to peak in high school. Growing up with only a spectral presence of a father, played by Kyle Chandler, Keely hides his abandonment issues with alcohol, corrupting his new girlfriend, played by
Poor parenting is the norm in many of these films. Some are just absent or uninvolved, others are clueless or, at their worst, needlessly cruel. The sympathetic parents of Spielberg's suburbia often give way to self-involved adults who view their own children as inconvenient distractions.
Author Tharp originally created the character in his young-adult novel to explore what really happens when you live in the now, hiding from both the past and the future. Ponsoldt, an Athens, Ga., native who filmed the movie in his hometown, was drawn to the material as a way to move beyond the glorification of such a character and into a realm where those actions have consequences.
The screenplay by the
"I think we glorify these characters that are essentially narcissists that refuse to grow up," said Ponsoldt, who previously wrote and directed the indie
Looking for guidance
That theme of teens being raised by immature adults is also taken up in the recently released "The Way, Way Back." Faxon, 37, and Rash, 42, the screenwriting duo who won an Oscar with Alexander Payne for 2011's
Their hero, 14-year-old protagonist Duncan (newcomer Liam James), is given few role models to emulate. His mother's jerky lothario boyfriend played by
"Duncan becomes stuck without a guide," said Rash of his main character, who longs to be with his real father. "We wanted this kid to maybe be the smartest person in the room in his observations — which I think a lot of kids tend to be. We often don't realize just how much they absorb."
None of these coming-of-age movies are destined to be blockbuster hits. While last year's heavy, male-centric drama
But the filmmakers have other goals in mind beyond success at the box office. Each one created their film with a purposeful timelessness in the hopes it could become more than the disposable popcorn fare that typically dominates the summer moviegoing season.
If they are really lucky, their movie posters may even make it onto the wall of a teenager's bedroom, proof they had something insightful to say to an audience desperately looking for connection.
"I wanted to make a movie that kids will watch and believe in," said Ponsoldt. "And I wanted to make a movie that is not so obsessed with the newness of 2013 or thinks that anything is different. Because I don't. Things are not that different."