What the evolution of coming-of-age movies means for representation

New narratives prove teenagers don't have to be one-dimensional anymore

Young people want to see their experiences reflected on screen.
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North American filmmakers have been trying to capture the quintessential coming-of-age experience since the rise of the teen comedy genre in the 1980s. However, the so-called average teen in most of these classics has been white, male, middle- or upper-class, and straight—until now.
 
Early coming-of-age movies were primarily about sex, drugs, and alcohol, with comedic moments exploiting gender and race. For example, 1978’s rom-com Grease transforms its female lead, Sandy, from shy and innocent into leather-clad and cigarette-smoking so she can better fit in with her boyfriend’s clique. By its end, Grease presents a one-dimensional message: teens must dress and act a certain way to be accepted.
 
In the same year, Animal House was released. Full of drunken antics and harmful pranks, the film follows the members of a college fraternity as they try to escape suspension and the wrath of their angry principal. Although Animal House has truly funny moments, its jokes more often rely on portraying race and gender in a way that excludes and belittles many of the movie’s viewers.
 
Twenty years later, coming-of-age movies introduced more varied protagonists, but they still hinged on the same tired tropes as their predecessors. The first decade of the 2000s saw a new kind of teenage comedy, with Mean Girls and Superbad at the forefront. Mean Girls, released in 2004, focuses on a girl entering public school for the first time and adapting to its social structures. The film notably includes LGBTQ+ secondary characters—albeit stereotypical ones—and shares a message about staying true to oneself.
 
Meanwhile, 2007’s Superbad is about three underaged high school seniors determined to get alcohol for a party. Its portrayal of nerd culture and unpopularity makes the characters endearing and speaks to the common teenage experience of not belonging. However, the film ultimately falls short of anything groundbreaking in terms of diverse experiences. 
 
Over the past thirty years of filmmaking, the continued lack of female directors in Hollywood, the prioritization of a male audience, and a lack of funding for indie projects ensured the same ideas were recycled again and again. 
 
But slowly—too slowly—things began to change in Hollywood. 
 
The early 2010s gave us coming-of-age movies that were still about privileged characters but injected enough depth and vulnerability to be called progress. The success of these films would set up the resources for today’s diverse blockbusters.
 
In 2013, Kings of Summer and The Way, Way Back each captured the profound nostalgia and yearning of a teenage boy’s adolescent summer. The first explores fragile masculinity and family dynamics through the eyes of a runaway trio of friends living in the woods. The second is a surprisingly emotional story primarily taking place at a water park and following an awkward teenage boy struggling to contend with his newly blended family.
 
While these two movies took coming-of-age filmography to a new level, they lacked the diverse realities of teenagedom, which expand beyond the experiences of one specific societal group.
 
Over the past four years, that restrictive portrayal of reality has changed in mainstream teenage films. Not only are teenagers constantly sharing ideas and voicing their opinions online, where geographical and financial restrictions fall away, but our social and political climate is at a breaking point. We’ve entered a polarized world, and young people are sick of seeing their voices stifled. 
 
Finally, movie studios have noticed what their audiences are asking for.
 
Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, Lady Bird, was arguably one of the first to capture the essence of teenagedom—fights with parents, lofty life goals, messy first times—in a nostalgic yet current high school story. Saoirse Ronan skillfully embodies the role of a young woman who isn’t sure where she fits in. The film tackles social issues in a way that walks the line between comedic and insightful.
 
The following year, the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a teenage LGBTQ+ romance was released. Love, Simon was not only widely hailed for its commitment to sexual and racial diversity, but for its heartwarming story about self-realization and friendship. 
 
Booksmart, released this past May, is the most recent coming-of-age movie to thoughtfully portray the teenage experience. The film follows best friends Molly and Amy, who decide to live out the high school party fantasies they spent four years avoiding in one raucous night. Molly is the class president who quotes feminist icons yet still grapples with her crush on her party-loving vice-president. Meanwhile, Amy is an out gay character whose story centres not around coming out, but around her friendship with Molly and her romantic interest in a classmate.
 
Booksmart has all the partying and mishaps you’d expect from a high school coming-of-age story, but doesn’t rely on tired stereotypes or lazy storytelling. Instead, it relishes the cringe-inducing and heartfelt moments of the teenage experience.
 
Its two protagonists are white women, but the movie’s overall cast is diverse without using its diversity as a selling point. It simply portrays the diversity that already exists in a typical high school classroom and leaves it at that.
 
While Booksmart is a step in the right direction, I’m not suggesting that we’ve reached the epitome of diverse representation in mainstream coming-of-age movies. Women and LGBTQ+ characters have been explored in recent films, but these characters cannot be written off as universal representatives of the identities they portray.
 
Hollywood protagonists are still overwhelmingly white—a prevalent issue that needs to be remedied. Every teen deserves to see themselves reflected in film and TV, especially since most young adults desperately want something to relate to.
 
Today’s coming-of-age movies have given us hope that, soon enough, no teenage movie-goer will ever ask themselves: “Where’s my story?”

 

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