“I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself,” Francois Truffaut, director of the coming-of-age classic “The 400 Blows,” once declared.
That preference applies nicely to the genre Truffaut helped inaugurate. Since the French New Wave pioneer’s story of a boy adrift debuted in 1959, movies have been channeling youth with sometimes even greater power than childhood itself, often for audiences who’ve long left it behind.
The coming-of-age film is timeless for a reason: It’s the one experience directors can be assured every moviegoer has gone through.
It also has become a cliche for a very similar reason: Since every filmgoer has lived it — and seemingly every third filmmaker has by now tried telling of it — the number of original stories has inevitably dwindled.
Yet the last few years have brought a surprising rejuvenation. Beginning, more or less, with “Boyhood” in 2014, the coming-of-age movie has become vital again, focusing on either explaining a new generation or telling fresh truths about an older one.
I think we should find a way to tell all the stories of children we’ve been too afraid to tell.
This fall-movie season is seeing that trend intensify — peak coming-of-age, in the vernacular of those no longer young (or next-level, among those who are). In fact, I’d argue that the coming-of-age cinema moment we’re experiencing isn’t just a revival of a classic genre but a new form taking shape before our eyes — depicting kids we’ve never seen, conveying stories we’ve never heard, arranging it all in shapes and structures we’ve never contemplated.
There’s the gentle allusion and unusual chapter structure of “Moonlight,” or a boy at the nexus of cultural and parenting crosscurrents in “20th Century Women.” A subversively philosophical character in the modern high-school of “The Edge of Seventeen,” and the road-trip dissolutions of “American Honey.” Or even the genre metaphors of “A Monster Calls,” in which director J.A. Bayona uses a mystical talking tree to help a young British boy cope with his mother’s illness
Not to mention the people doing the growing up, many from rarely seen backgrounds--a gay black teenager in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” or a distinctly 21st-century surrogate family of vagabonds in Andrea Arnold’s “Honey."
Even documentaries are getting in on the act — a new movie called “Best and Most Beautiful Things” takes a quirky, legally blind 20-year-old and, with tenderness and a lack of easy pity, tracks her attempts to find herself. Childhood may remain fundamentally the same. But the ways we’re representing it are vastly different.
“I looked around and thought, ‘We are too overprotective of our kids.’ There’s a loneliness they live through, but as adults we hide from that idea, like our kids aren’t going through it,” Bayona explained. “But why? Kids aren’t hiding from it. Why should we? I think we should find a way to tell all the stories of children we’ve been too afraid to tell.”
The modern coming-of-age movie goes back to the 1950s. That period of postwar sorting — a time, in a sense, when America and Europe were themselves coming of age — saw not just “400 Blows” but seminal entries like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Red Balloon,” not to mention the publication of the genre’s ur-text, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Until then, the idea of making a young person the center of a film was relatively novel — -outside “The Wizard of Oz” and a few others, kids on screen had been little more than walking props. These new works both assumed and gave access to rich inner lives.
Since that time, the genre has ebbed and flowed. It would be hard to argue with the idea of the 1980s and very beginning of the 1990’s as a fertile coming-of-age period, what with “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies” and “Say Anything” and all those John Hughes and Steven Spielberg films, along with Spike Lee and John Singleton and voices outside the white mainstream.
And even though Twihards would disagree, it would be equally hard to claim a halcyon period that followed. Sure, there was the occasional “Clueless” or “Kids” later in the 1990s, or “Mean Girls” in the early 2000s. But great films about young people soon became harder to find. (Not least among the issues was the ascent of irony, which if not the fatal enemy of the coming-of-age film can certainly provide a toxic blow.)
The aughts were particularly fallow. Films about kids proved flimsy as transformation narrative, becoming, really, romances or pulp that just happened to involve young people. Outside of the “Harry Potter” series it was slim pickings (indeed, the most trenchant coming-of-age piece was arguably a TV series, “Daria,” which ended its run in 2002.) Ditto for more recent melodramas. Works like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” took the tear-jerker and simply grafted it on to teenagers. It was the same familiar melodrama, just in younger bodies.
But “Boyhood” changed all that. It was one of the first contemporary movies that reacted to, or at least stood apart from, the trend toward irony and metaphor over realism. It explicitly drew from an actual child — followed him from early grade school to the cusp of college — which lended it newfound depth. And because it attempted to encompass the entirety of youth, it contained a scope the genre had almost never seen.
That same aesthetic fills “Moonlight.” In the movie, which arrives this weekend, Jenkins chronicles a laconic but sweet young man in a rough part of Miami. The film, based on a stage piece by Tarell Alvin McCraney, begins in preadolescence, continues to high school and ends in the character’s 20s.
Yet unlike “Boyhood,” it does away with the yearly check-in, favoring a bold, snapshot approach.
“I wanted to make it less gradual and more stark,” said Jenkins. “You can really understand someone growing up by zeroing in on those moments. You can feel their maturation that way.”
If that film succeeds outside the bounds of a typical coming-of-age structure or setting, “The Edge of Seventeen” flourishes within it.
Written and directed by first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig and godfathered by Oscar winner James L. Brooks, “Seventeen” falls distinctly into a familiar genre: an offbeat teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) in a suburban high school. But the way it unfolds is highly original.
The teacher character (Woody Harrelson), for instance, is not wise but reticent, at times even unsympathetic. And the arc does not follow a student who falls prey to the obvious foibles. When Steinfeld’s Nadine accidentally sends a bawdy message of seduction to a classmate, her actions are not broadcast to the school for maximum embarrassment as in so many other accounts. Instead she gets what she wants — and then realizes she doesn’t want it. Far from neat lessons, “Seventeen” delivers insightful, at times painful realizations.
“The film was always about how to capture this girl and this moment in her life in a real way,” said Fremon Craig. “To do that you just have to listen really closely.” The director, uncommonly, conducted research at many schools to achieve authenticity, the indie filmmaker as journalist.
Meanwhile, Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” (about a group of hard-living and -partying traveling sales kids), Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” (a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage boy in Santa Barbara circa 1979 being raised by a complicated mother), last year’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Marielle Heller’s look at a young person’s sexual awakening) and even Garrett Zevgetis’ “Beautiful Things” (about the young blind woman) were all able to achieve levels of realism because of their own research and desire for authenticity. Unlike so many top-down approaches, the movies are interested in depicting the point-of-view of the kids themselves — confused, free-spirited, raw, vulnerable.
In a shattering moment from “Beautiful Things," lead character Michelle Smith gives voice to her resentments, in the process offering a potential slogan for this new breed of coming-of-age movie.
“I know that people are going to think it’s weird. But it’s who I am,” she said. “Other people’s ignorance should not be my burden to bear. I should be able to be myself.”
Asked about the moment in an interview, the ebullient Smith laughs and gives a shrug. “I don’t know how I came up with that. But that was pretty good, right?”
Smith’s real-life persona is much like that seen in the film “People think I’m a character, but I’m just me,” she said, adding, “I love that so many movies and TV shows now tell stories about how kids really are. We need more of those.”
Noted Ariana Garfinkel, the film’s producer: “I think the goal should be to let the young person’s point-of-view speak for itself. You don’t want to adultsplain it for them.”
It’s a unique time to make a coming-of-age movie. Rarely have adults tried so tightly to hang on to youth, from Instagramming mothers to Botox clinics to the famous Pew Research Center study of millennials earlier this year that found that, for the first time in the modern era, living with one’s parents was the most common arrangement for 18- to 34-year-olds
Of course, the coming-of-age storyline is predicated on the idea of progress, the character who moves beyond youthful folly to discover something about the world or themselves. That can be, almost directly, the opposite of this cultural movement, in which people seek to return to a time before those lessons were learned. In a sense, as a society we’re trying to un-come of age.
Every time I would think about what I’d want from a scene I’d think of the ferocious honesty of a ‘Say Anything’ or a ‘Breakfast Club.’
Paradoxically, though, that may explain why we’re so interested in it: The directors are essentially trying to process their own youth. Said “Seventeen’s” Brooks. “A lot of these filmmakers remember high school just enough.”
Coming-of-age movies tend to move in very particular cycles, with a dramatic class slowly replaced by a new, often lighter group.
The serious films of the ‘50’s were followed by the beach-party movies of the 60’s, and the more humanist works of the ‘80s eventually gave way to the comedic flicks of the ‘90’s, culminating in the fin-de-siecle ribaldry of “American Pie.”
“What’s interesting now, however, is you seem to have a different cycle going on,” said Julian Cornell, a film professor at NYU and Queens College who specializes in children’s and coming-of-age movies. “We had this whole wave of dark fantasy like “The Hunger Games” and other dystopian teen movies, and now they’re being replaced by these serious and more intimate films.”
He said one explanation for the change—apart from the fact that the former may have run its Big Hollywood course—is the shift in society toward more stability. “I think when you had these post-/911 anxieties everyone was making these dystopian movies--coming of age movies of course generally reflect concerns about a society’s future--to express these larger global fears. And now maybe that there’s been a little more stability, you’re seeing the concerns get more intimate and personal again.”
New classes of coming-of-age movies also tend to happen when the next generation graduates to filmmaker age and in effect tries to make movies about the generation behind it--the teenagers that they don’t (or are trying to) understand. The films of Hughes arose at a time when Boomers were struggling to decode emergent Gen-Xers, and now Gen-Xers are paying it forward to Millennials. There’s a plausible argument that the best time for coming-of-age movies is when the disconnect between generations is highest.
It also helps that by now a new generation of filmmakers has some significant forebears to look up to. “Every time I would think about what I’d want from a scene I’d think of the ferocious honesty of a ‘Say Anything’ or a ‘Breakfast Club,’ ” said Fremon Craig, who at 36 grew up with those films.
Maybe the most potent factor is the recognition that, in a world where children are in such a hurry to grow up and adults so eager to be kids again, the coming-of-age movie doesn’t have to be about its usual subjects.
“I do think my movie is a coming-of-age story,” “20th Century’s” Mills said. “Except it’s the mother who’s coming of age.”
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT