There’s been a lot of change and experimentation in movie-making over the years, but one thing that has stayed consistent and never ceased is the coming-of-age film. From John Hughes to Greta Gerwig, the genre shows no sign of slowing down with titles like Love, Simon, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name all proving incredibly popular over the last twelve months. Considering that the genre revolves around aging, why does our interest in it remain ageless?
To me, the answer lies within the definition. The Collins Dictionary defines coming-of-age as ‘when something reaches an important stage of development’ which, quite simply, is the perfect formula for a movie. For one, it makes an engaging narrative. All stories are hinged on a significant change, and there’s no bigger change than growing up. For example, Richard Linklater 2014 film Boyhood is, at first glance, a fragmentary bore of somebody’s life, so what made it so critically acclaimed? Sure, filming it over 12 years was somewhat pretentious, but the running theme that kept the film’s narrative going was the growth and development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane). We were fascinated by his upbringing because it wasn’t particularly remarkable, but because it was so damn normal – something we all have experienced. By stripping the genre back to basics, Boyhood showed us that this relatable development and growth is all we need for such a film to work.
You could argue that development isn’t limited to adolescence: it’s rare to find a film where the development of the protagonist doesn’t occur and if it doesn’t, it’s arguably a bad film. However, what’s emphasised in the definition of coming-of-age is how ‘important’ that particular development is – it defines who you are and who you’re going to be moving forward. It’s what made Simon go from closeted to self-accepting, and it’s what made Lady Bird become Christine. By contrast, an adult character developing is just building upon a quality that’s already there. Meanwhile, young adults are discovering this unique quality for the first time.
So, what can we learn from these timeless films? For a start, we can consider our own coming-of-age experiences. Approaching university, for example, is a key coming-of-age moment in our lives. For many of us, it’s the first time we’ve lived somewhere without our parents, and where we must learn to be self-sufficient and look after ourselves. On top of that, we’re in an unfamiliar city with nobody from the past to grasp on to. You have essentially fallen head-first into a whole new way of life and you need to figure out your ‘new normal’ and the person you want to be. On top of that, you’re at uni in one form or another to chase your dreams and your passions.
University at first can feel a little isolating, so the very fact that you’re watching a coming-of-age film is great because its universal themes, feelings and angst can help you feel less alone as you adjust to your new life. More often than not these characters feel like your friends. Secondly, you can take note of these characters and how they develop and adapt to whatever life throws at them. If Katniss Everdeen can fight to the death twice and overthrow a tyrannical regime, you can make friends and attend your 9am.