The evolution of the coming-of-age genre in film

Coming-of-age films have evolved over the years, continuously striving to authentically represent a common experience shared by all: growing up.

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Coming-of-age films have evolved over the years, continuously striving to authentically represent a common experience shared by all: growing up.

By Shobini Iyer, Pleasant Valley High School - IA

Encapsulating the entire teenage experience is nothing short of a daunting task. 

The film industry has strived to capture the quintessential coming-of-age film for decades. Before the inception of the coming-of-age genre, representations of teenage lives on screen were far and few between. Since the rise of the coming-of-age genre in the 1980s, it has evolved largely due to society’s changing perceptions of inclusivity.

The subject matter of coming-of-age movies has always corresponded to its targeted audience: teenagers. In most cases, coming-of-age movies chronicle a main character’s “bildungsroman,” in other words, the transition from innocence to experience. Traditionally, the character undergoes a rite of passage–whether that be a religious ceremony, first love or high school graduation. 

The early days of the coming-of-age genre in the film industry are remembered for filmmakers’ many trials —some successes, most failures. 

“Dead Poets Society” (1989) is still widely regarded as a coming-of-age masterpiece. The film follows the story of a passionate English teacher who teaches his students valuable lessons through poetry. Through its brilliant screenplay, “Dead Poets Society” delivered the timeless message of living each day with gusto.  

On the other hand, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) is pure entertainment disguised as coming-of-age. Ferris Bueller, the charismatic high school senior, has it all: popularity, a girlfriend and a quick wit. One day, Bueller convinces his best friend and girlfriend to skip school and spend a spirited day in Chicago. Produced merely three years prior, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”’s overarching message is remarkably similar to that of “Dead Poets Society”: carpe diem. But the execution of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” provided a comedic, yet unrealistic take on “seizing the day.” Using comedy as a crutch, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” ultimately left audiences hard-pressed to extract a deeper meaning.

Not only were earlier coming-of-age films flawed in execution, but also in terms of politically correct themes. Blockbuster hits like “Animal House” (1978) and “Sixteen Candles” (1984) perpetuate outdated stereotypes. For instance, “Sixteen Candles’” Long Duk Dong was characterized by offensive Asian typecasting, including his broken English and derogatory nicknames. Similarly, “Animal House” portrays African-Americans as threatening and women as little more than sex objects. Looking back, it is safe to say that many motifs present in these films are not relevant to adolescents today.

PV English teacher Kevin Gaffney reflected on the genre today, which is starkly different from earlier films. “The humor in coming-of-age movies relating to consent, sexual assault, and homophobia wouldn’t be appropriate in today’s time. Films such as ‘Animal House’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ used minority characters as punchlines rather than depicting them as three-dimensional humans,” he stated.

After years of cliche and behind-the-times story arcs, the genre slowly began to find its footing in the late 2000s. “Superbad” (2007) gave audiences a relatable story about high schoolers exploring the adventurous side of teenagedom: sex, drugs and alcohol. The beloved comedy set a standard for a certain groundedness that audiences have grown accustomed to today. 

The turn of the decade spawned a new era of filmmaking.  Films began to take on a new purpose, rejuvenating a genre that was undeniably growing stale.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012) distinguished itself from its predecessors, marked by its authenticity in addressing teen struggles such as mental health and sexual assault. “Boyhood” (2014) pioneered an entirely different rendition of the genre by capturing a 12-year span, allowing audiences to witness the protagonist physically and emotionally mature. “Lady Bird” (2017) organically captured the essence of senior year juvenescence, mother-daughter dynamics and everything in between. 

Still, the genre had been dominated by the experiences of white protagonists. 

By the late 2010s, the genre had finally grown out of its selective storytelling and shifted in favor of representation. Until recently, films had primarily featured people of color in token minority roles—characters in the background who would chime in with a stereotypical remark or play the part of the butt of the joke.

Films like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) and “Moonlight” (2016) changed the course of this intolerant trend. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” resonated with audiences of Asian-American descent, setting precedent for more Asian-Americans to be cast in lead roles in years to come. “Moonlight” explored the nuances of a gay, Black man coming to terms with his sexuality and finding himself from within. The all-Black cast in conjunction with LGBTQ+ themes in the film made great strides to shed light on communities underrepresented on the big screen.

Gaffney shared how depictions of young adults in film have changed for the better. “Coming-of-age movies today do a better job of showing diversity in society. You see more often characters from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds that you wouldn’t have seen from movies in the 80s and 90s,” he said. 

Junior Sumika Thapa, who has also witnessed the evolution of the genre, is proud of the progress that has been made but recognizes that there is still work to be done. “Growing up, I was never able to relate to the white-washed experiences portrayed in coming-of-age films,” she said. “Today, I’m happy to see my story represented on-screen, but many others still can’t say the same for themselves.”

Coming-of-age films were revered by audiences in the 80’s, are adored by audiences today and will remain relevant for generations to come.

This story was originally published on Spartan Shield on September 20, 2021.