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The Ultimate Choice #21: Coming of Age

When I proposed a few ideas for this edition of The Ultimate Choice, the clear winner was coming-of-age films. This is something that I do think is personal to many people, as we will naturally gravitate towards the tales that reflected us when we were growing up. Still, I am very intrigued to see what people will choose for their pick in this edition.

Eighth Grade

Chosen by Amy Smith

As you may have seen, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was the most loved directorial debut from last month’s edition of The Ultimate Choice. However, for me, it is the best coming-of-age film I have seen. As much as I love the films of John Hughes and other coming-of-age tales of my time, there is something so authentic about Burnham’s direction that makes me fall in love with it on every watch.

A big part of coming-of-age films is about connecting with the viewer, and that is what I mean by these movies being a product of their time. Whilst I may have been 20 when I first saw Eighth Grade, it was a film that perfectly captured my experiences of being a teenager. Instead of being all about romance and mischievous adventures, my teenage life was being glued to my phone, awkwardly trying to make friends at school and not knowing where in life I fit. To me, that is exactly what Eighth Grade captures.

Part of that authenticity comes from the casting of Elsie Fisher, who is absolutely wonderful and gives one of the best performances of the year. Burnham’s screenplay and direction gives Elsie a lot of material to work with, but to also let them have fun with the concept and to act natural. This is not an adult pretending to be at school, this is someone at the right age capturing a specific moment in their life. Every choice that Burnham makes brings this vision to life and I cannot wait to see what stories he goes on to tell in the future.

Some Kind of Wonderful

Chosen by Jake Godfrey: Twitter

In truth, I could have picked any John Hughes film for this piece, but Some Kind Of Wonderful holds a special place. I think because more so than in any of his other scripts, the characters feel real. The ending aside, seeing the genuine platonic friendship between Keith and Watts is so refreshing for this kind of film, and even rich girl Amanda Jones is more than a stereotype.

Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson turn in wonderful performances, but it is Mary Stuart Masterson who steals the film for me. Her nuanced take on a girl who puts so many defensive barriers around her is heart-breaking and when emotions do explode the scenes feel earned. Even supporting characters, such as school bully Duncan, are fully fleshed out with their own character arcs.

Whilst the ending is something of a cliché, the way the characters react to it is atypical of a Hollywood film and, as with the best Hughes scripts, it is endlessly quotable. Credit must of course also go to director Howard Deutch, the opening montage where Watts plays the drums as we are introduced to the characters is so succinct in its storytelling, telling the audience everything they need to know about the central characters in under two minutes.

Stand By Me

Chosen by Brian Skutle: Twitter | Sonic Cinema

When I watched Stand By Me as a kid, I enjoyed the sense of real-world adventure as four friends go to search out a dead body. By grounding itself in believable situations, Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the story by Stephen King stands in contrast to something like The Goonies, which has similar ideas and themes but is more of a Saturday afternoon serial than a palpable story of growing up. I still look fondly on both films, but by framing its story as the memories of a man looking back on his childhood, Stand By Me lingers longer as one of the great movies about growing up ever made.

This is one of those films where the movie ratings system in America makes no sense. While there is a lot of language in Stand By Me, there’s no reason this couldn’t have been PG-13. Watching this as a kid, I never thought for a second that some of the behavior we see here- playing mailbox baseball, smoking, trespassing, or stealing cars- was acceptable. What I appreciated was the dynamics between the main four characters of Gordy (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Cory Feldman) and Verne (Jerry O’Connell): the way they enjoyed each other’s company but also busted their balls; the way they enjoyed Gordy’s stories; and the way they support each other when someone attacks them. Their late-night fireside discussions pose memorable, silly questions.

When they’re on the road, they have moments like having to outrun a train, peel off leeches, and get away from a junkyard owner. Gordy’s story about a pie-eating contest gone awry is priceless humor, and is great for the way it takes an overweight character and turns the abuse he’s shown by the people in the audience against them. But when it gets real about what these characters are going through is when Stand By Me elevates to the level of great storytelling. Gordy is a great storyteller, but his parent’s indifference towards him after the death of his older brother Denny has him wanting to hold on to his friends. Chris is Gordy’s best friend, and he wants what’s best for him, even if that means they move apart as friends, because even the best friends shouldn’t want to be the reason another friend is unable to reach their full potential. This is a performance that makes me miss River Phoenix and all of the great performances we have missed out on over the years.

Later in the film, at night, Chris breaks down because he understands his reputation in town, and how he could turn himself into a success and it wouldn’t matter- to some, he’ll always be the kid the stole the milk money. Few actors could make such a moment so heartbreaking and natural. Fifteen minutes later, these guys are having to get leeches off of their bodies, and when Gordy has one in that most unfortunate of places a boy could have it, Chris’s empathy for Gordy is genuine. This is one of the best explorations of childhood friendship I’ve ever seen.

When they finally reach Ray Brower, the kid who’s been missing, the real point of this journey for Gordy is laid bare. In Ray Brower, Gordy sees someone not unlike him, someone who seems forgotten by society, much like he feels forgotten in the shadow of his dead brother. The way the Brower story is resolved is a credit to the growth Gordy has shown along the way; he’s not going to disrespect Ray Brower in death, by seeing him as a prize to be won, as a way to earn respect himself- his actions reflect that. The real story, though, is the fact that, for the last time in their lives, these four share one last adventure they can look back on and remember. And maybe, one day, Gordy will share it for the world to read; in an unfortunate twist of fate, it’s the death of another person close to him that inspires him to do so. That’s why Stand By Me stands above many other coming-of-age films in movie history- it’s less about the travails of youth, but the way we can look back on it, and pinpoint the moments that defined us moving forward. Sometimes, those are the more important times in our life, and come at times we most need them.

The Florida Project

Chosen by Jerome Muscarella: Twitter | Jerome Reviews

Coming Of Age Films are one of my absolute favorite genres of film. A genre that can bring out a film that can make you really relate to it in several ways. They also often introduce incredible talent from first-time actors and actresses or introduce not as popular actors and actresses to the general public. I have decided to talk about The Florida Project directed by Sean Baker, a film that captures a childhood quite well and the exploration of the environment the film takes place in.

Ever since I saw The Florida Project for the first time I’ve always thought about this movie quite often. How beautiful, meaningful and just how incredible the film really is. Rarely does a film ever cause me to think about a film very often. The Florida Project seriously made me feel like a kid again, it reminded me of my childhood adventures going outside and discovering new things, areas, houses and among other things! It’s a time capsule of your childhood, it’s truly something special.

The filming in The Florida Project was beautifully done, almost the whole movie was shot with a 35mm camera with the ending being shot with an iPhone camera. I absolutely love the feeling of a 35mm camera it showed how much dedication went into this movie and I truly admire it. It also makes the whole capturing a childhood type feel that much more natural. The filming also compliments the setting really well especially given that the location is Florida. Both do a fantastic job of complementing each other.

The acting in The Florida Project was phenomenal and felt extremely natural. The characters were relatable as well, Willem Dafoe is one of my favorite actors and he gives one of my favorite performances by him. He plays an adult that most of us know from our childhoods as an adult who keeps watch or you commonly see every day in a neighborhood, hotel and other areas. Brooklynn Prince however is the highlight, her performance is quite incredible. Not only is her performance raw and feels as natural as possible, but it’s the very definition of having a childhood like feel to it (keep in mind she was 7 years old at the time this movie released.)

Sean Baker’s direction is masterful, he truly gives it his all and does such a splendid job with it. Baker knows how to capture so many different emotions in one film, I also want to say that the film is not entirely cutesy, there were some scenes that I really didn’t see coming at all. But I’m very glad they did include those scenes because realistically not everything is cutesy in a childhood. So by adding those scenes it made this movie even more powerful and actually more relatable. The Florida Project is an incredible coming of age film that I feel is the very definition of the genre if you haven’t already please give this one a watch!

Mean Creek

Picked by Samuel Preston: Twitter | Cultured Vultures

The coming-of-age movie can encompass a wide range of emotions, whether a comedic approach at the misadventures of the young protagonist, or a darker aspect with adult subject matter. I found myself conflicted in terms of which film to nominate as my favourite, especially when considering the previously mentioned wide-range of possibilities. For instance, the plotline of Son of Rambow resonates with its cast of children recreating their favourite movie First Blood, contrasting well with the darker and sobering Jojo Rabbit (those shoes, damn). The subtextual analysis of real-life issues through supernatural elements that excelled in Buffy The Vampire Slayer inspired the cult classic Ginger Snaps, blurring the lines of female puberty with werewolves and slasher horror.

There’s the romantic blossoming of Jennifer Grey’s ‘Baby’ with Patrick Swayze’s Johnny in cult classic Dirty Dancing, or Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Stand By Me that introduced the concept of unreliable adults to our heartbroken children. At one point, I leaned closely to the animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which portrayed two simultaneous coming-of-age moments in both Miles Morales’ teenage novice and the depressed Peter B. Parker. However, in the back of my mind was a movie that I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years, but still thought of regularly: a little known psychological drama released in 2004 called Mean Creek.

Focusing on a young Rory Culkin’s character Sam, Mean Creek highlights the repercussions and cruelty of bullying, with Sam being roped in by his older brother Rocky and his friends Clyde and Marty to enact revenge on school bully George. Their plan is to invite George on a boating trip, strip him down and throw him in the river, embarrassing him as he runs home. What initially is a simplistic tale of a bully getting his comeuppance with clear lines of hero and villain ala Stand By Me gradually develops into a multi-dimensioned analysis of perspective. We begin the movie being almost indoctrinated into a singular point of view and gradually having our interpretation picked at until we reappraise the entire concept. What once seemed black and white, is now shrouded in grey.

This movie opened my eyes at the time to the possibility that how I see people is just one version of who they are. What from one side seems like a victim defending themselves can morph into cruelty, and what from one view can suggest a bully may not be that clear. The film itself is haunting due to the actions of the characters, and the relentless realisation of repercussion. A child commits many acts without an appreciation of consequences, but it’s when a child comes to terms with the fact their actions has impact that they become an adult. Mean Creek perfectly encapsulates that moment where five children on a boat are shown that what initially seemed a harmless childish prank impacts them forever. A world once full of good and bad now becomes flawed, a bully is now a victim, and a child comes of age.

The Breakfast Club

Chosen by Joshua of The Movie Apprentice: Twitter | The Movie Apprentice YouTube

When it comes to the coming of age films, few are as timeless and iconic, as 1985’s The Breakfast Club, directed by the late great John Hughes. The film follows five high school teenagers in Saturday detention, who are there for a range of reasons and are tasked with writing an essay on who they think they are by their teacher Richard Vernon.

The majority of this film takes place within a library and is heavily dialogue-driven. The thing that makes this coming of age movie stand out above many others, is the fact that it all takes place within a single location. There is no special adventure to go on, this is just one day and one location, as these five teenagers all ranging from different cliques slowly shed their masks over the course of this Saturday detention.

The five teenagers we have are as follows: Andrew Clarke, an amateur wrestler, Clair Standish, our popular preppy princess, Brian Johnson, our nerd of many academic clubs, John Bender, a stoner rebel who bullies others, and Allison Reynolds, our artistic introverted quiet girl. 

Within school hours these five are their cliques, and would likely never interact with each other, as they would assume they have nothing in common with the others. If it wasn’t for wildcard John rocking the boat in the early stages, this detention would have likely passed in utter silence as these five hide behind their masks. But thanks to John’s early boat rocking, some conversations begin to happen, and free from their friends’ scorn for daring to talk to people out of their clique, the five begin to unify and open up. 

During many confession scenes in the latter half, these individuals find themselves to be more alike than they ever thought, and several of the issues that weigh down on them, are not too dissimilar from adult life. This film came out in the mid 80’s and I first watched it in 2011, yet I could still relate to the problems they face as very little has changed in terms of social standings within schools.This film is the perfect coming of age film because no matter how old you get, the issues these five face never cease to be relatable. In terms of the timelessness of the film, and the ageless messages and themes, The Breakfast Club, remains the champion of coming of age films.

Booksmart

Chosen by Henry Davis: Twitter

Cinema provides an audience with many things: big screens, incredible sound systems but most importantly a space cut off from the world, where the sole focus is the story being told. When these features are combined with watching an exceptional film for the first time, it becomes an experience like no other. Try as we might, a home system will never truly replicate that and, with cinemas being closed intermittently over the past 12 months we have all been deprived of such experiences. Perhaps my most treasured cinema experience is watching Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart for the first time.

Booksmart follows two best friends, Molly and Amy, who spend the evening before graduation attempting to condense an entire high school experience into one night. The film is hilarious throughout, from the introduction of Gigi (Billie Lourd on exceptional surrealist form) to Molly and Amy’s disastrous attempted carjacking.

Yet, the film’s best scene is its most dramatic, an argument between Molly and Amy. Filmed in one long tracking shot the camera follows Amy as she jumps out of the pool after seeing the girl she likes with someone else, into the house where she argues with Molly over leaving the party. As the argument escalates the dialogue fades out showing that the argument itself is far more important than the substance of the disagreement. Wilde plays the scene like a break up, hammering home the central message of the film; that the lasting friendship between Amy and Molly is the most significant relationship of their high school experience. Wilde supplants the common “break-up make-up” narrative found in many coming-of-age films, onto a platonic friendship marking Booksmart’s originality in a crowded genre.

This is also a film that revels in the creative opportunities that filmmaking allows; from the hilarity of the animated doll sequence to the fantasy of the dance number, inviting the audience to join the film in its freewheeling fun. The film also boasts an array of great supporting characters such as Gigi, Jared and George, who elevate the scenes they feature in and deliver some of the film’s funniest moments. During the brief reopening of cinemas, one of my first visits back was to see Booksmart. To sit down with a group of strangers and be given permission to shut out the world and enjoy this incredible film reminded me why I love the cinema and Booksmart so much.

Mud

Chosen by Joey Gentile: Twitter

Coming of age movies have begun to bore me. In my mind, they are difficult to make without sounding preachy or repetitive of stories that have already been told time and time again. That is why the film Mud is so refreshing.

Instead of following the common trope of making the protagonist in their late teens and putting them in a formal setting, Mud follows a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), in Arkansas as he and his friend Neck (Jacob Lofland) help out Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive trying to reunite with the love of his life.

What strikes me about this film is how Jeff Nichols, the writer and director, created Ellis’ character. The best way to describe him is naive. Ellis is a wide-eyed, hopeless romantic who believes in all the power of love. Within the first quarter of the movie, it is established that he has his first crush and his parents are on the brink of divorce. Immediately, we have the dynamism of this character and when Mud comes to him for help, he is given hope — hope that love exists and will prevail. Whenever he is confronted by someone who’d challenge that belief, he either runs or shuts them down. 

Adam Stone did the cinematography for Mud and it is some of the most beautiful work I have ever seen. The film has a grit that gives it a feel of authenticity and pairing it with telling the story through the eyes of a child offers the story its heart. Adding in the use of colors, primarily reds and blues to display the hope and lack thereof for love, this wonderful piece of cinema comes together like a painting that belongs in the Louvre.

Sheridan and McConaughey are the shining stars of the movie. With this only being the second feature for Sheridan, he has fantastic chemistry with McConaughey and their on-screen presence works wonders. McConaughey is one of my favorite actors and knowing that he was Nichols’ first choice for the title role makes it all the better because he nailed this part. Mud challenges so many common themes that I have grown tired of in coming-of-age flicks — there is no falling out between Ellis and Neck, we witness the story through the eyes of someone younger than usual, and there’s an intense gunfight. I watch this film whenever I want to feel happy, sad, or anything in between and it never lets me down.

Juno

Chosen by Diana Coronado: Twitter | Screen Queue

Juno is my Lord of the Rings. I’ve seen it probably 100 times by now. Every time I watch it, I identify with a different character or I see something that I didn’t see in my previous viewings. From the production design to the cinematography and of course a script. I first saw this film in theaters and when it premiered back in 2007. I think I  was 14 at the time. Up until that point, I’ve never experienced a film with that type of humor, made-up slang and heart. It was a revelation for my teenage sensibilities and it went on to form much of my personality during my formidable years.

This is such a charming film that roots its main character in a sarcastic, warm blanket and shows growing up comes in different forms. It is also important to mention, this was at the same time that indie dramedies were thriving. You know those types of movies, warm palette, indie soundtrack, hand-drawn stylized title. Juno is the best of those movies. Yes, it’s VERY 2007. The contemporary costumes are spot-on to what a quirky teenager in Minnesota would wear. The main characters literally finish the movie singing an acoustic version of an indie song. That said, the accuracy of the era actually makes it timeless. As it is with Heathers, the made-up slang and stylized production embraces the era without falling for the popular tropes of the time. 

There is this grounded world in Diablo Cody’s scripts that doesn’t get enough praise. Whether it is Tully or Young Adult or Jennifer’s Body. She likes to place her characters in a realistic working-class suburbia. I’ve always appreciated how the houses looked normal. It is often a criticism from modern coming-of-age films that the characters are often upper-middle class and not totally relatable. Not every angsty teenager has a huge house and a nice car and is able to go to parties and or adventures every other day. The teenage experience is mundane. 

Jason Reitman was able to bring out great performances from the whole cast. Every time I watch his film, I look at each performance a little bit more carefully. This particular viewing, I was very impressed by Jennifer Garner’s performance. There’s a scene in a nursery where her character and Jason Bateman’s characters are having a conversation about paint but of course, it is not paint. I never noticed how much sadness she was able to bring to that scene until now. Elliot Page also deserves all of the praise he received for this role. The vulnerability and tenderness he brought to the role made the character of Juno MacGuff one for the ages.   

As with many coming-of-age movies, Juno deals with the transitions between big life phases. From Mark who hasn’t fully let go of his younger self to Vanessa who’s ready to enter the next stage in her life to Juno who is just starting her life. Everyone deals with the big phases differently. Some of us go through them hiding in humor and sarcasm, while some refuse to go through them at all. 

Lastly, I’ll say this, as an indie kid who was a teenager in the late 00s, this film felt like it was made for me. The older I get, I am able to relate and identify with different characters. In my teenage years, I identified Juno, with her humor and confidence and kindness. In my early 20s, I identified with Mark, with his cool job and rejection of the “yuppie” life. He was always the bad guy but I could relate with his want to follow his dreams. Now in my late 20s, I cried when Vanessa held her baby for the first time. Maybe in a few years, I will see myself in JK Simmons’ character. Regardless of where I am in my life, Juno will always be my indie comfort movie.

House Party

Chosen by Athina Clarke: Twitter | Black Pistachio Blog

House Party is all about Kid n Play, two teenage best friends who decide to throw the best house party of their lives while their parents are away. This is the kind of house party where people actually dance, not just stand around drinking beer out of red cups. A frat party it is NOT.

Play has less responsibility than Kid and his well-to-do parents have gone on holiday “way down south” for the weekend. Kid on the other hand has a strict father who grounds him after getting into a fight at school. Despite this, Kid is determined to go to the party and not be labelled a social misfit. He also has to avoid the school bullies, conveniently named Stab, Willie and Pee-Wee whilst trying to hide from his dad.

The 90’s fashion in this movie is mad and the rap battle scenes hilarious. House Party isn’t just about the party, though. It’s also about Kid trying to be taken seriously for his lyrics and winning the attention of the girl of his dreams. Keep your eyes peeled for Martin Lawrence and Robin Harris (Pop) who absolutely smash it with the comedy. The soundtrack is killer and I guarantee you won’t be able to keep your feet still. You cannot take for granted John Strickland’s performance as the nosy neighbour who has incredible comedic lines still quoted in my house till this day!

House Party is a great coming of age film that celebrates Black excellence, creativity and love.


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