The coming-of-age movie is a staple in the film industry, with iconic titles coming to mind for each generation. The 50s had Rebel Without A Cause, the 80s had The Breakfast Club. In recent years, the genre has proven extremely popular, with expansions in which stories are told covering a broader range of life experiences.
The success of the coming-of-age film cannot be discussed without acknowledging the impact of A24. This independent production and distribution company, founded in 2012, has accumulated 25 Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 2016 for the beautiful coming-of-age story, Moonlight. This film follows the journey of Chiron, a queer Black boy, split into three stages in which he is played by three different actors. Depicting his growth from a vulnerable child, to an angsty teenager, the film culminates with an incredible performance by Trevante Rhodes of Chiron as a toughened adult. He struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, his mother’s drug addiction, and the abuse he faces from his bullies; without preaching the lessons he learns, Moonlight emphasises how Chiron grows into who he is with time. The choice to frame the film as a triptych, with the three actors representing three stages of life, is the standout choice which powers its appeal – we do not see the moments in between the three ages that are focused on, leaving audiences speculating about what drives changes in us.
One notable element of the coming-of-age experience is the beginning of a new stage of life. Whether that means graduating high school, starting university, or moving out of your childhood home, this is a strange time that can often be accompanied by newfound nostalgia and appreciation for the people who painted your childhood. This is depicted in the 2019 comedy Booksmart; the lead characters, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), pride themselves on their academic achievements throughout high school and are suddenly shocked to find out that their peers are similarly accomplished. They realise that they are alone in having sacrificed their social lives in favour of their dreams of getting into reputable colleges and ultimately attempt to make up for four years of partying in one night. In the process, the interactions with the quirky characters they grew up alongside cause a revelation for both Molly and Amy: that their peers are deeper than the stereotypes they have been assigned.
A third A24 film that captures the pain of growing up is Lady Bird. The beauty of this 2017 film is in its specificity, showcasing the individuality of each character and making the audience feel as though we are watching the life of a real person. The titular character’s real name is Christine (Saorise Ronan), but she goes by Lady Bird. The heart of the film is her relationship with her mother, who often says the wrong thing and hurts her, with Lady Bird responding by doing the same thing. Their scenes together are both funny and tender: for example, the familiar experience of bickering while shopping, only for all to be forgotten when you find the perfect dress. Writer and director Greta Gerwig described this film as a photo album: you see snapshots of Lady Bird’s life, including the big moments, such as her high school prom, but the events of her life are all familiar, punctuated with dynamics we will recognise between her family and friends.
Moonlight, Booksmart, and Lady Bird will strike a chord in different viewers for different reasons. Though one may be more relatable than another, these are three coming-of-age tales that truly convey the ache, the joy and the realisations that come with moving on to experience a new stage of life. They may not be perfect depictions of everyday life, but what such films provide is a representation of the pain and pleasure of growing up.
Illustration: Verity Laycock