Coming of Age at the End of the World
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Whether at the hands of global warming or a global pandemic, Zennials (that is, the intersection between Millennials and Gen Z) might be growing up in the last days. We’ve been robbed of many of the quintessential firsts we grew up watching in coming-of-age films. So for August, the month of Firsts, Lyvie Scott takes us through her favorite coming-of-agers.
Some of these films represent the best of the genre. Others depict the absolute hell of growing up in what feels like (and often can be) a perpetual reckoning. Whichever poison you pick, the following films are packed with experiences that the youngest generation has felt deprived of through one earth-shattering circumstance or another.
La Haine (1995)
Somewhere in the 2010s, we realized that films about the struggle for equality were still wildly relevant today. Films about slavery, civil rights, and police brutality echo so much of our current plight that it feels like a collective slap in the face to watch them now. I’ve recognized this irony countless times in my short life as a cinephile, but it seems to sting the most in French masterpiece La Haine.
It’s difficult to quantify the legacy of a film like La Haine. In fact, it almost feels reductive to call it just "a film," despite the simplicity of its plot. It gives us a 24-hour glimpse of a housing project on the outskirts of Paris, caught in the aftershock of a violent riot between the youth and the police. The near-fatal shooting of a North African boy sparks a fire in the bellies of Viz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) — three of his friends, suddenly desperate to shake off the yoke of their cité.
La Haine is not the first to successfully portray Western society as the ticking time bomb it is — a fact that Spike Lee, the king of incendiary social justice films, won’t let anyone forget. To him La Haine is a “complete rip-off” of his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Rip-off or no, both films are essential for anyone looking to understand the struggles that marginalized communities face daily. They’re relevant so long as tension between the people and the pigs exists. And they’re personal, no matter who you are, or what neighborhood you were raised in.
Something about La Haine just manages to tip it over the edge — at least for me. Maybe it’s the intimate character study of the film’s three leads, the way their complicated rapport stretches to its limits as they wage war against the world, against each other. The director of La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz, invites you to get lost in their lostness, to empathize with their plain-spoken anger, their searing recklessness. They’re each trapped in their own ways, desperate to feel something, to feel powerful while their mutual friend lies in a hospital, fighting for his life. And while La Haine doesn’t exactly offer an escape for an audience watching 25 years later, it delivers the perpetual truth of our society — about as bluntly as a gun to the head.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
I don’t think I ever played hooky. Not in high school, anyway. The thought never, ever crossed my mind. I was too scared to miss something, I guess. Or scared of getting caught. I was very much a Cameron in that respect. In fact, I’m still a Cameron. I worry about staying out too late, about getting in trouble with my parents (yes, still — shut up). I worry about causing scenes in public. And I almost never allow myself to live in the moment.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off serves as a reminder of what life could be like if you’re brave enough to throw caution to the wind. Granted, it takes a special kind of twerp to get away with so much as Ferris does. I don’t think I have his level of charm, nor do I possess anywhere near the amount of gumption to drag people along on my ridiculous quests. He’s rather selfish. But it’s all in the pursuit of getting people to seize the day, or whatever. It has the same lesson as Good Will Hunting; Ferris just doesn’t deliver it as kindly as Robin Williams’s passionate Mr. Keating.
When things are “back to normal,” I think I’ll try to live a day like Ferris Bueller. It will be hard. It will just barely be spontaneous. I will have a list, and a full tank of gas, and anything else I could foresee myself needing in case of emergency. But it will be an adventure. I’ll make sure of it.
Another Country (1984)
If Dead Poet’s Society (1989) is America’s preppy, closeted younger brother, then Another Country is its super-gay (yet somehow also closeted) British cousin.
The film loosely follows the exploits of Guy Burgess, a debauched British diplomat and member of the Cambridge Five — an elite group of double agents who leaked 20 years’ worth of Britain’s secrets to the Soviet Union before the Cold War. Its subject matter skirts past that particularly juicy bit of Burgess’s life, focusing only on the inspiration for and aftermath of his desertion to communism. Still, it’s weirdly cathartic to watch Guy Bennett (Burgess’s cinematic alter ego) fight his festering disillusionment with his imperialist Motherland at a stuffy boarding school — and eventually embody the adage “be gay, do crime!” as a result.
Another Country is by no means superior to DPS, but there’s enough communist rhetoric, dark academia, and British twinkness to send Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard running for the hills. So many of our generation have come of age in environments similar to Burgess/Bennett, disgusted by the privilege of some and the marginalization of others — and radicalized scarcely before we can enter polite society. It’s interesting to see what one can do when motivated to cripple the systems that have created (and continue to create) a borderline uninhabitable world.
Colin Firth is the communist spewing said rhetoric, by the way. He carries a bust of Lenin with him nearly everywhere, and sullenly cites Karl Marx under his breath at every opportunity. Tempted yet?
Love, Simon (2018)
For a repressed gay living with the fear of being outed, every day feels like the end of the world.
Someone once compared being closeted to perpetually holding one’s breath. The way you walk, talk, dress, etc. can be stilted from all that figurative (and sometimes literal!) breath-holding. You move through the world differently when the only thought in your head is “please, God, don’t let anyone realize I’m fill-in-the-blank.”
There are so many wonderful revelations within Love, Simon’s electrifying 110-minute runtime. It’s so devastatingly relatable. Its titular hero, embodied to perfection by the endearing Nick Robinson, is the repressed gay everyman our generation has been holding out for. He’s not ashamed of who he is at all, or who he’s become — he’s just not sure how to introduce this new him to the rest of the world. But his path to do so is a respiratory roller coaster. Anyone invested will find themselves holding their breath as Simon does, gasping after particularly shocking or cringe-y scenes, releasing sighs of relief and choked-back sobs, laughing — squealing, even.
But perhaps the best of the film’s revelations, one that always makes me cry, is a conversation Simon has with his mother shortly after he’s (spoiler!) forced to come out. It is she who points out that the old Simon seemed to be holding his breath, waiting to exhale, waiting to find acceptance in the yawning years between the old him and the new. She is one of the first to reaffirm her love, and to affirm that nothing has changed except Simon’s new supply of freedom.
“You get to exhale now,” she tells him. “You get to be more you than you have been in a very long time.” Whether we relate to Simon’s struggle or not, we’re all waiting to exhale in a way. If you haven’t yet, take a deep breath — and when you’re ready, let the real you breathe.
Mogul Mowgli (2020)
I’d like to think we all have artists we love so much that we will find a way to shoehorn them into every conversation we have. While British-Pakistani actor-rapper-activist-internet-boyfriend Riz Ahmed is mine, the actual shoehorning will be taking place later (see me scramble to justify the inclusion of Rogue One below).
I really do believe that Mogul Mowgli is a perfect example of a coming of age film. It’s exceptionally personal — not just for Ahmed, who co-wrote this semi-autobiographical script with his director, documentary auteur Bassim Tariq — but for angry children of immigrants everywhere caught in the strained ties of their familial bonds.
Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper on the precipice of his first world tour who’s struck with a mysterious autoimmune disease on a trip back home to London. All promise of his big break is put on hold as Zed is confined to a hospital room and forced to endure constant visits from his helicopter family, who attempt to steer him back to the ancestral culture he prefers to ignore. When Zed learns that his condition was unpreventable, virtually incurable, and — get this — inherited from his father, a surrealist culture clash ensues.
Mogul Mowgli deals with generational trauma and the divide between parents and children raised in different societies with such grit, honesty, and bravery that it’s impossible to look away for even a second of its 90-minute runtime. Ahmed weaves songs from his mixtape, The Long Goodbye, and his own personal experiences with race and culture into his prickly, driven alter ego. He’s not afraid to portray a borderline unlikable character. Nor does he shy away from the topic of cultural displacement. His work speaks to a group of people who feel utterly rejected by their traditional origins, and by the Western society they were raised in. That sort of confusion, the very kind that forces you to grow up in what Ahmed has affectionately labeled “a cultural no man’s land,” can leave anyone feeling as angry as Zed. That’s what makes his journey to let go of it all just that much more compelling.
Your textbook best-of-the-genre entry, one whose significance I can hardly attempt to quantify.
Moonlight is a triptych, a trinity of moments that precariously shape the identity of its protagonist, Chiron. Each vignette is like its own microcosm; Chiron’s world is defined in terms of what he understands. It’s an immersive experience watching his world grow. New circumstances and experiences are introduced with such innocuous care, with the neutrality of a child’s mind. Chiron’s point of view has such a sway over the audience that, as we follow him from boyhood to maturity, it’s like we’re maturing with him.
I first saw Moonlight at the film festival at my school, back before I became disillusioned with the validity of our curriculum. Mahershala Ali and Ashton Sanders gave a talk after the screening, and by then I was floating on cloud nine. As a black Floridian questioning her identity — in every sense of the word — I saw a piece of myself in every frame of Moonlight, and hung on every morsel of behind-the-scenes trivia Ali and Sanders would part with.
A few years later I saw Barry Jenkins at an after-party at my school’s same festival, and I nearly peed myself. I spent 20 minutes trying to work up the courage to go up to him — and naturally, by the time I’d found it, he was gone. I wanted so badly to tell him what the film meant to me (as I’m sure he’s heard and compartmentalized from thousands of aspiring filmmakers since Moonlight’s premiere) and try to bond over our shared experiences in South Florida. Though I didn’t get my chance that night (and I’m lowkey glad, as I have time to edit myself for a future encounter) I don’t think I’ll let another opportunity like that pass me by. But we’ll see.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Now stay with me. This counts. I’ve had more than enough time to justify its inclusion.
So Rogue One is a Star Wars prequel that takes place directly before the events of A New Hope: the very first Star Wars film to be made, that introduced us all to that dumb galaxy far away. In it, a group of scrappy spies launch a death-defying heist to steal the plans for the Death Star, an Empirical superweapon bent on making planetary genocide that much more efficient.
Rogue One is a coming of age because our heroine, Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones, an absolute beast in this role), is canonically like… twenty-one. She is emotionally stunted, along with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor (who is canonically like twenty-seven — ha). Every scrappy little member of Rogue Squadron has grown up in a warzone. They fight for their lives every day. Some are fighting a war they don’t think they can win — yes, against the very Empire that will later give Luke Skywalker and co. a run for their money in the in-universe years to come.
But in the process, they each learn to open their hearts — to each other, and to hope, a concept they have been taught to abandon or dismiss as a myth. And during their death-defying mission to steal the Death Star plans… they rediscover themselves. They are reborn. And it’s beautiful.
It’s coming of age. It’s a heist. It’s found family. And it’s more than just the Vader scene (if you know, you know).
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
Ah, baby’s first crime.
This unofficial prequel to The Fast & Furious saga was inducted into the canon after director Justin Lin climbed into the driver’s seat for Tokyo Drift. Like most Fast & Furious enjoyers, Lin is absolutely obsessed with actor Sung Kang, who first appeared as fan-favorite Han in his film Better Luck Tomorrow. He managed to coerce Kang into reprising his role as a burgeoning high school criminal — and the rest is history.
BLT, based on the shocking story of a student murdered by his honor roll peers, reeks of MTV-era nostalgia. It was fittingly acquired by MTV Films after its Sundance debut (that’s the last of my fun facts, I swear). This angsty addition to the High School Delinquent trope is a refreshing comfort in the 2020s, despite its bleak subject matter. It’s not every day you see commentary on upper-middle-class overachievers, trapped in the cyclical hustle of school and extracurriculars, ignored by their parents, and burdened by the archetype of the “model minority.” Lin wanted to depict the “urban-gangsta mentality” that most kids trapped in suburbia will adopt in an attempt to feel alive — and while Better Luck Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, it sheds a brilliant light on this unique microcosm.
There’s just something about high school criminals. Whether it’s The Bling Ring or that Chris Evans movie where he steals SAT answers with Scarlett Johansson, the trope will always hit. Even better if one (or all!) of said criminals are people of color.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
It’s difficult to quantify what actually makes this hazy dreamscape of a debut so good. It was Coppola’s first film, and that pesky Hollywood nepotism aside, it remains one of her best. I’m inextricably drawn to stories about women living in stifling, repressive environments. If the repression is remotely religious in nature, I’m on board.
The Virgin Suicides follows a group of neighborhood boys who, in turn, attempt to follow a group of sisters who are wise and affected beyond their years. The perspective of the film is almost never on the titular virgins — not in any real, tactile way. Coppola’s choice to depict them from a secondhand, voyeuristic point of view only adds to their layer of mystery and perceived perfection.
"We knew the girls were really women in disguise,” recalls the film’s narrator, one of said neighborhood boys all grown up and still thinking about the Lisbon sisters decades later. “They understood love, and even death.”
The real tragedy lies in the fact that no one seems to understand them. Everyone — from their strict religious parents to adults and kids their own age — seeks to own them, to endow them with the stereotypical traits all girls are shackled with. Throughout the film, the girls are never given a chance to share how they feel. No one ever asks. This contributes to the frustrating mystery of their inevitable suicides, as does the unreliable narration from a man scouring the recesses of his childhood memories for some shred of closure. No one knows why they chose to kill themselves. No one knows their motivations.
But there’s something so delicious about that mystery. The neighborhood boys, try as they might, will never truly know those girls. They don’t deserve to. No one did. And while this narrative leans a bit into their small town’s motivations to objectify them, it also affords the sisters an ethereal sort of autonomy, a dignity and an infamy that they weren’t allowed in life. You can immortalize them as outrageous human beings thinking only of themselves: the customary view of suicide in Western society. Or, like Celia — the first of the sisters to attempt suicide — you can admire the Japanese, respect the honor of their choice, and allow them to die as they lived: completely impenetrable.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
I am not smart enough to fully appreciate the scope and the intimacy of this movie. I am okay with admitting that.
Alfonso Cuarón is telling us so many things with this film. He’s telling us not to be ashamed — not of love, not of sex, not of our anger, not of our sorrow. He tells us not to bottle it up. Bottling it up will kill you — maybe quickly, but maybe slowly, too. He tells us that society is fragile, that we’re all connected, whether we want to be or not. And that’s all just barely beneath the surface of this film. There’s so much more within the depths, more that I, again, am not yet qualified to explain. But I can appreciate it well enough, even without the vocabulary to express it.
On the surface, Y Tu Mamá is a road trip movie entwined within a horny, stir-crazy coming of age and topped with a sprinkle of social commentary. I included it because I miss road trips. I miss the confined tension of hating the friends you thought you loved when there’s not enough space to breathe by yourself for even a moment. I miss feeling that insane animal magnetism you feel when you go on trips with sexy acquaintances that you want so badly to kiss (among other things). Everything seems possible when you leave home for an extended amount of time in a motor vehicle. Life seems to stop so long as you are in that car, that time capsule, hurtling towards a destination you’re not even sure is there.
But when it is, and when it’s paradise, the time-stopping can stretch on for a little while longer. You can sit on the sands of a beach with your friends and forget that you hated each other or wanted to screw each other in that time capsule. You can swim and talk to the natives and adopt their simple traditions for a while. You can paddle out to what you think might be the middle of the ocean, to what feels like the end of the world. You can be free until it’s time to go home.
I want to be free again. I want to feel hate and lust and loss again. I want to be confused about something other than my life or my future. I’m not saying a road trip to a fabled beach in Mexico will do the trick. But who’s to say it won’t?
Things are not going back to normal. Not for a long time, at least. And the state of the world is frustrating, especially when you think of all the things we’re missing out on, all the things we’ve been robbed of. But in a way, that’s what cinema is for. Even if we can’t see the world right now, even if our world is literally burning and no one seems to care — it’s impossible to dwell on that without wishing for the apocalypse to hurry up and put us out of our misery.
It’s cool to be radicalized. In fact, I encourage it. But not at the risk of letting go of your innocence. I think that’s why I love coming of age, but I look for it in the strangest places. Innocence can be lost, as we’ve seen. Hope can be taken. But it’s always retrievable. We can always find it again. It may feel like we’re going through Hell right now, but there are still pockets of Paradise around. You just have to know where to look.
Check out the rest of Lyvie’s coming of age picks on Blossom's Letterboxd Page.