This week’s question is in honor of the 35th anniversary of Sixteen Candles, which was released May 4, 1984:
What is your favorite coming-of-age story in pop culture?
At the risk of remaining totally on-brand, I have to go with the anime choice: FLCL. It’s weird and funny and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but you know what else is all of those things? Growing up! The show centers on a kid named Naota who—much as it annoys him—develops a crush on a super cool and outgoing older girl named Haruko who (literally) crashes into his life and starts throwing his calm and boring world into disarray. She’s actually from space and is using Naota to tap into his ability to summon powerful robots from a portal in his head, but it only works when the shy Naota is willing to open himself up emotionally. What’s more coming-of-age than becoming so overcome with emotions that you channel cosmic power into a pair of guitars, get into a superhero fight with your crush, and then tell her you love her even though she definitely doesn’t feel the same way? That’s literally what being a teenager is like.
It might not have been around during my own “coming of age” era, but Michaela Coel’s raucously awkward gem Chewing Gum arrived at an ideal moment. Tracey’s desperate pathway to her own clumsy sexual awakening is so painful to watch and, in parts, sadly familiar. Navigating boring jobs, shitty boyfriends, overly protective parents, and confusing crushes I wanted no part of were all undeniable markers of my adolescence. Even Tracey’s best friend, Candice, could properly stand in as an accurate representative of my unabashedly honest group of close companions. The two short seasons we were gifted will always remain relevant to me as long as I continue to cringe at my early 20s (so... forever). Mainly, Chewing Gum arrived at a time when black girls were in need of coming-of-age stories that weren’t weighed down with tragedy or tropes. Coel’s distinctive wit and candor created a world of characters that we don’t often get to see in productions primarily featuring people of color. We like a well-placed dick joke, too!
I just finished a rewatch of Freaks And Geeks and am astounded anew at how evenhanded and empathetic it is about the peaks and valleys of (a specific type of) adolescence. The show’s preference to emphasize the latter over the former arguably doomed it to one-season-wonder status, but that warts-and-all approach is what distinguishes it, nearly 20 years on: Stories about the longtime crush who turns out to be a total drag, the new outfit that fails to improve your social standing, the thrills of even the tiniest amount of freedom chased by the agony of getting busted for abusing that freedom. What struck me on my latest visit to Chippewa is how well Freaks And Geeks separates the kids’ world from the adults, lending a great mystery to life beyond high school and giving dialogue to the authority figures that makes them sound as if they’re speaking an entirely different language from that of their young charges. (And if anyone tries to hop that barrier, like hippie-turned-guidance-counselor Mr. Rosso, they come off—to paraphrase my favorite coming-of-age story from when I was coming of age—like a goddamn phony.) I’ve long wished that someone could translate the emotional agility and magic-hour ache of Dazed And Confused into a TV show; this time through Freaks And Geeks, I realized that Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, and their band of future superstars already pulled it off.
I was no longer a teenager by the time Patricia Cardoso’s adaptation of Real Women Have Curves, the 1990 play by Josefína Lopez, was released in 2002, but that’s probably for the best. The contentious relationship between Ana (America Ferrera) and Carmen (the late Lupe Ontiveros) that is at the center of the film so closely mirrors the relationship I had with my own mother that I’m not sure I could have handled seeing it projected up on the big screen for strangers to dissect while I was still in the thick of it. There are many other elements of this beautifully acted and well-crafted tale of burgeoning adulthood that I’ve always found relatable, from the awkward romance to filial attachment and subversion of notions of femininity (even as the title offers up a limited one). But the way the writerly Ana yearns to be free while Carmen, who’s only ever known the role of caretaker, grapples with the prospect of an empty nest have made Real Women Have Curves resonate with me for nearly two decades.
It’s been 15 years since it first came out, but I never tire of Napoleon Dynamite’s particular portrayal of adolescent quirkiness. There’s no other high school movie like it, set in Idaho with random references like magical ligers, tater tots, and a cranky llama named Tina. Watching it with my own almost-teen kids, I appreciate Napoleon even more: He shows that we’re not all going to be high school hotshots (and the character of Uncle Rico personifies the perils of peaking in high school), but we’re bound to be better off when we’re true to ourselves. And we still might even make student body president, if we’re lucky enough to have a friend with some sweet dance moves (in a scene I’ve watched maybe a hundred times). As Rex Kwon Do points out at the start of the movie, all we need is some backup. The movie may be pushing Napoleon and Deb down a slightly lovelike path (does a more romantic line of dialogue exist than “I caught you a delicious bass”?), but the two end the movie in a moment even better than a clinch: Playing tetherball to the tune of When In Rome’s “The Promise.”
The brilliance of Dazed And Confused is how it follows the lives of multiple students in a broad range of ages so you can relate to each one at a different pivotal stage in that janky carnival ride of pubescence. Whether you’re in eighth grade going on freshman and afraid of being beaten up upperclassmen thugs, or you’re an upperclassman thug going on graduate and afraid of being beaten up by life, there were no shortage of relatable, horrifying, and sometimes even awesome experiences. The authenticity of the teen experience is reinforced by the film’s loose, almost plotless stream-of-consciousness structure. Technically, there’s a vestigial appendix of a plot in Randal “Pink” Floyd’s decision on whether or not to sign his football coaches “don’t be a hippie” pledge. But it should have been cut away in order to give the movie over entirely to the sole time in your life where you have nothing but time and you’re desperately searching for something to fill it with.
Coming-of-age stories tend to culminate in some big revelation, be it social, sexual, or emotional, but I was a pretty hopeless kid, sniffing like Adaptation’s Charlie Kaufman at manufactured moments of self-actualization. As such, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the work of Todd Solondz, whose 1995 indie Welcome To The Dollhouse brought me a weird kind of comfort. I adored and identified with Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn Wiener, a bullied middle schooler whose anger and insecurities give way to alienating bouts of reactionary cruelty and sad attempts to emulate the cool kids. Part of Solondz’s appeal is that he writes pathetic characters with real faults, not misunderstood nerds with hearts of gold, and as someone who often felt ignored I could relate to the outlandish, self-destructive ways in which loneliness can manifest. You could argue that Dawn doesn’t really learn anything, let alone come of age, by the film’s end, but that’s exactly the point—sometimes there’s no one around to love you, to direct you, to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Solondz carved out two disparate futures for Dawn in future films. There’s the very, very unfortunate one in 2004’s Palindromes and the better—but still kinda depressing?—one in 2016’s Wiener-Dog. These days I identify more with the latter than the former, thank god.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a lot of things—adventure, love story, an epic battle against God—but at the core is the coming of age of Lyra. Interwoven between dust particles and experimental theology, Paradise Lost-esque set pieces and knives that cut windows in a multiverse, Lyra grows out of childhood in a painful but wondrous transition. Pullman makes the necessity of that transition explicit, making clear that to go from innocent to experience is not a fall from the garden of paradise but a process of learning and growth, and the very cornerstone of being human. Its almost a meta story about coming-of-age in fantasy, rebuking the kinds of C.S. Lewis narratives that cast children as pure and growing up as wicked. And beyond the thrilling adventures that come with Lyra growing up, that definitive stance that growing older is not something to mourn but to embrace makes His Dark Materials my favorite story of leaving childhood behind.
Old-school YA literature is littered with the corpses of hundreds of beloved horses, otters, cats, and—of course—dogs, all slaughtered to teach kids about the beauties of life, and the grim inevitability of its end. But while Old Yeller gets all the press, the one that hit me hardest as a soon-to-be-adolescent was Wilson Rawls’ Where The Red Fern Grows. A fourth grade teacher with a now-apparent sadistic streak read it to our class over the course of several weeks, hooking us with young Billy’s efforts to buy a pair of beautiful Redbone Coonhounds, his successes in training them to become accomplished hunting dogs, and then the tragedy of their inevitable deaths. (I’m relatively sure this is the first time I ever encountered the idea of a grief so awful it literally kills you. R.I.P. Little Ann.) Just to kick readers in the teeth a little more, Rawls ends the book with a suggestion that God killed Billy’s dogs in an effort to make life more convenient for some other people. If that’s not coming-of-age, what is?
I was tempted to remain aggressively on brand by citing one of the many horror movies that have used monsters as metaphors for puberty, but in the end went with a film that actually had a profound effect on my adolescent psyche: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. It’s a coming-of-age story in more than one sense: there’s the sexual element, of course, as clean-cut college kid Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is initiated into the more sordid side of adult relationships thanks to his affair with masochistic lounge singer Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini). And, as we all know, that leads Jeffrey into some truly enlightening revelations about the festering corruption that lies just beneath the squeaky-clean surface of the town of Lumberton—gas huffers, crooked cops, psychopathic killers, the whole nine. It was that second initiation that really captured my imagination as a teenager, watching the VHS of Blue Velvet I had purchased in the used bin at Hollywood Video over and over again on my tiny 13-inch TV/VCR combo. I had long since begun to suspect that the beaming, neighborly churchgoers my parents forced me to be polite to every Sunday must have been hiding something, and Blue Velvet not only supported that prematurely cynical thesis, but taught me a lot about irony and aesthetics in the process.