Recipe for a perfect coming-of-age film


Image: Paramount Pictures
Image: Paramount Pictures

The coming-of-age film has been a perennial favourite amongst film-goers since the dawn of cinema. They document a universal experience which is all the more poignant at a time when many are going through the transition of graduating from university to beyond the Durham Bubble. Centring on an adolescent (usually male) protagonist, they explore the progression from youth to adulthood and what really constitutes ‘growing up’. Within these films, there are a number of tropes which crop up time and time again which help to define the genre, making it easy to create an archetype. Here are my key ingredients for creating the ideal coming-of-age narrative.

1. Loss of Virginity – Having sex for the first time is seen as a primary indicator that a teenager has matured, while being an important factor in social status for American high school students. Modern comedy classics such as American Pie and Superbad present characters whose main goal is to pop their cherry, although they typically discover things like true friendship or a meaningful relationship are more important.

2. Updating a Literary Classic – Finding out what the classics teach us and applying it to a high school setting has been a popular choice for many film-makers. The adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma into teenage favourite Clueless is one of the first which springs to mind, while Easy A is based on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (while also being an interesting twist on the ‘loss of virginity’ trope).

3. Standing up to Parents or Authority Figure – This trope is concerned with the realisation that those in authority aren’t always correct, usually involving a timid character finding their inner courage. The true journey in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Cameron’s decision to stand up to his dad, while the climax of Dead Poet’s Society constitutes in shy Tod being the first one to (literally) stand up for unorthodox teacher Robin Williams. It shows that growing up means thinking for yourself and having the courage to assert your opinions in the face of opposition.

4. Realising that being different is okay – The strict social hierarchies of American high schools make it difficult for those characters that do not fit in easily to a particular stratum. Trying to fit in can lead to you pretending to be someone you’re not (see Grease) or getting caught up in the nasty side of high school politics (see Mean Girls). These films usually conclude that it’s better to just be yourself and have done with what others think.

5. Prom Night – The build-up to a big event (usually prom) is a big focus for many films, including Pretty in Pink. It is seen as the pinnacle of the social calendar and the ultimate assessment of your social status. However, the obsession with a single event is typically found to be silly and pointless in the face of bigger life decisions. Notably Carrie took this trope to an extreme conclusion when the heroine’s night is ruined in blood and destruction.

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