To pass the time during lockdown, I have found myself getting lost in film. I have never been good at ‘binge-watching’ television shows, instead preferring the enclosed narrative of a film, and, in particular, the ‘coming-of-age’ genre. ‘Coming-of-age’ films can take place over several years, like Richard Linklater’s 12-year-real-time story of Boyhood(2014), or portray a moment, like the twenty-four hours of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019). They can feature adults playing children, or children forced into a fictional adulthood before their time. They can be funny, emotional, heart-racing, and everything in between.
They can also be frustrating. Critically, these films are often dismissed as inferior to ‘serious’ cinema; the hormone-driven behaviour of their characters seen as immature, jaded, and their plots unrefined and shallow. I would argue that this criticism demonstrates a misunderstanding of the genre. Coming-of-age films are not trivial, but rather they present the moving yardstick of what we consider important in life. At their very best, they offer thoughtful meditations on how childhood and adolescent experiences shape who we are. What frustrates me, though, is who these films think we are. The majority focus on the experiences of white, suburban, middle-class teenagers, to whom many of us don’t relate. Occasionally, different stories of race, class and sexuality are drawn on to highlight disparities in the teenage experience, often to great effect, like in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) or Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God (2002). However, in these cases, characters cannot come of age without stress or trauma. The stories of people of colour may be foregrounded, but there is little that is light-hearted, playful or typically teenage about them.
I have noticed that films of this genre often compress the process of teenage development into a scene featuring a pool. The pool might not belong to the protagonist but the fact they have access to a friend with enough wealth to own a pool is crucial. The immersion and subsequent emergence from the water enacts a rebirth—if we were to pinpoint a major shift in the plot or tone of the film, this is it. In Booksmart, we find the trope in its most excessive form, where one of the two main characters, Amy, is horrified to spot her crush, Ryan, kissing her friend Molly’s crush, Nick. The kiss acts as a devastating, soul-destroying revelation to Amy, prompting a prolonged under-water scene where she must come to terms with what she has seen. It is sad, sure, but also fits within the typical, placid and middle-class expectations of youth: your crush likes somebody else. Compare this to the secular baptism of Chiron in Moonlight. Rather than experiencing his ‘rebirth’ in a private, secluded pool, Chiron’s is in the ocean. The ocean is for everyone, but in this moment, it belongs to Chiron, to his story, and to solidifying his attachment with his father-figure during a swimming lesson. Director Barry Jenkins noted that when filming, he had a visceral reaction to seeing his actors in the ‘same body of water that brought [his] ancestors’ to America, drawing attention to the difference between working-class African Americans such as Chiron and Juan, and the white population who solidified the racial oppression of Black Americans with slavery. For Jenkins, the ‘water was directing the film’ at this point and he was just a ‘bystander’, flawed by the power of the Atlantic Ocean. Compare this to the sheltered, glassy, private pool water in Booksmart. The pool trope acts as a microcosm for the differences in tone between ‘coming-of-age’ films that use white central characters and those that do not.
At times, it feels as if predominantly white films are cautious to engage in certain issues, perhaps fearful of alienating viewers wanting a light-hearted comedy. This can once again be seen in Booksmart, a film that was heralded for portraying the realities of Gen-Z teenagerhood. Amy and Molly are two white teenage girls, who realise, just a day before graduation, that the peers they had written off as shallow and obsessed with social status have managed to balance having fun and academic success: these ‘party-animal’ classmates were also accepted into prestigious universities. ‘Triple A’, or Annabelle, explains that it wasn’t that these students didn’t care about school, as Amy and Molly had mistakenly presumed; it was that they didn’t only care about school. Molly and Amy are intelligent, ambitious young women, who are well-educated and politically aware (their codeword is ‘Malala’, for instance). And yet we are supposed to assume that their anger at their evidently wealthier peers, getting into similarly elitist universities, does not stem from a wider fury at the classist structure of higher education that favours those that have the wealth to pay for special counsellors, expensive extra-curriculars, donations, or even ‘legacy admissions’. The disparity between Molly’s apartment (where she seems to live alone) and the staggering wealth of her classmates is never discussed. Wealth disparity is used as a backdrop, and even a joke—the ‘richest kid in school’, nicknamed ‘the 1%’, rents a yacht for a party and hands out iPads in goody-bags. It is as though the film assumes that neither Molly nor Amy, nor even the viewer, would have concerns that stretch to consider class. The characters are implausibly naïve to the realities of high-school life, drawing attention to the age of the actors, who seem more like out of touch adults than realistic teenagers. Perhaps the film could have engaged in a more nuanced discussion if it had emphasised the difference in mind-set created by obvious disparities in wealth at an early age.
Compare this reluctance to consider the realities of class in Booksmart with the centrality of this matter in Moonlightand City of God, which both explore the emotional effect poverty has on adolescent development. In both films, characters resort to drug-related crime in order to improve their economic situations. Young people dealing and using drugs and, in turn, committing further crimes, such as armed robbery, murder, and rape, might seem out of place in a ‘coming-of-age’ film. But not everyone comes of age in the suburbs of middle-class America. The children living in the so-called ‘City of God’ in Rio de Janeiro have had to grow up far too soon. They have a very narrow time period to reach maturity, that is, if they do at all. And yet, whilst such stories are important, real, and deserve attention, they are not the only experiences of Black youth, who deserve to see themselves reflected in the expansive range of narratives offered to their white counterparts. Racial diversity in ‘coming-of-age’ films must extend to diversity of stories and experiences, rather than pigeonholing all Black characters into ‘gritty’ or ‘stark’ portrayals of adolescence.
It is not as though ‘coming-of-age’ films are unable to make class distinctions. Poverty is an issue that spans all racial demographics. However, there is a difference between being ‘house-poor’ (a phrase used by Olivia, Mason Jr.’s mother in Boyhood) and poverty accompanied by racial discrimination and family breakup due to the racist mass incarceration of African-Americans, meaning that the approach and narratives can be strikingly different. For example, compare the lives of Starr from The Hate U Give (2018) and the eponymous protagonist in Lady Bird (2017), both young women living, as Lady Bird would describe it, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. These characters straddle two worlds: Starr and Lady Bird both attend elite private schools with affluent student bodies, but their home lives don’t fit with this school experience. In Lady Bird, the majority of the narrative is devoted to the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. The two argue over their family’s financial situation—Marion regards her daughter as a ‘snob’ who feels she is too good for community college, whereas Lady Bird sees Marion as oppressive and unwilling to fund her dreams to attend college on the East Coast. Embarrassed by her family’s financial hardship, Lady Bird lies to her friends about where she lives and makes her father drop her a few hundred metres away from the school. Starr, like Lady Bird, stands at the intersection of two worlds: her almost homogeneously white private school and, by contrast, her majority African-American, underprivileged neighbourhood. But Starr’s issues are mostly caused by the tyrannical force of systemic racism and police brutality. In the most climactic scene in The Hate U Give, Starr watches as her childhood friend Khalil is murdered by a white police officer, who mistakenly thought he was carrying a gun. In this moment both Starr, and the film’s viewers, become aware that no amount of education or positive discrimination for a limited few can effectively challenge institutional, state mandated racism. Lady Bird never faces this level of trauma, and also never fully understands the reality of inequality. Although she accepts her real name, her ‘good name’, Christine, and thanks her mother for her sacrifice, her hometown feels like it is now a part of her past. Her future is in an expensive East Coast school with a cohort that we can assume is as demographically un-diverse as her school. Her ending is hopeful, as is Starr’s, though the latter’s is tempered by her irredeemable loss, and continuous struggle against discrimination.
So, what are ‘coming-of-age’ films? Funny, contemplative, irreverent, stilted, gut-wrenching, absorbed, and everything in between. Young people are everywhere, so the genre should be as expansive as the world is wide. However, this is not entirely the case, as the majority focus on the stories of who they believe to be their audience: the white, American middle-class. Moonlight and City of God do not play to convention and are heralded as examples of well-crafted, award-winning, masterpieces of the genre. They achieve this by placing their narratives firmly outside the mainstream formula of pool parties and first crushes, instead choosing to pursue powerful stories of race, class and sexuality, alongside stunning visual and cinematic effects. But who decides which stories are unconventional? As important as these two films are, they cannot be the only type of contribution to diversify the genre. Films with more meandering, less tense-wracked plots, such as Lady Bird or Boyhood, can also be sensitive, touching, and critically acclaimed. As well as Chiron’s and Rocket’s graphic and tragic arcs, I would like to see more Black characters ‘coming-of-age’ as the quirky, off-beat protagonist or the teenager with ‘complicated’ feelings and classroom cringe. It is only then that these stories and this genre can belong to us all.