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Smart People on Ice: A Case for Setting Coming-of-Age Films in College

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

I love a good coming-of-age film. They’re easy to come by, whether it’s classic fare from John Hughes or films making the rounds on streamers and in awards season conversations. It’s a genre that, at least in my opinion, will probably never die. There are too many ways to exploit it, too many still-unseen perspectives on what it’s like growing up in a certain time and place that’s still somehow universal. I am, admittedly, a fiend for the more bizarre of the genre, stuff like Heathers or Stand by Me, but my point still stands.

My only real question, though, is this: why in the hell are we still setting these stories in high school?

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration on my part. But by and large, when you think of the phrase “coming of age,” I’m sure you think of films set, some way, in a high school. Whether it’s the Saturday detention of The Breakfast Club or the weird fake dating scenario of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the plot largely revolves around teenagers who sometimes haven’t even learned to drive yet, let alone reached voting age. Infants, in the eyes of most grown adults who actually have come of age.

Let me ask you a question: at what point in your high school career, traditional or otherwise, did you ever feel like you’d found yourself? That you fully understood yourself as a human being and were content with that? No longer languished over your future or your self-image or any of the other, massive things teenagers grapple with?

If you give me a straight answer that’s not “I never did,” I’m calling bullshit.

While there are plenty of high school films I affectionately consider favorites — Valley Girl and Clueless come to mind — there’s something that always sticks for me with these films, something that rubs the wrong way now that I’m seven years out of high school and wondering why I made such a big deal out of prom and my SAT scores. It’s hard to pin down, and part of me simply blames it on being older, having grown out of the kinds of stories being told for kids about their future and what it’s going to be like.

But then I watch fairy tale endings in which kids have everything figured out before they hit that graduation stage, which, combined with the repeated casting of ripped thirty-year-olds as pimply teens, serves only to cement negative opinions in young people’s brains, this idea that they need to be grown at 16 — started by films like Sixteen Candles and perpetuated by influencer culture that demands kids look more adult at 13 than I do at 25. It’s nonsense put into kids’ heads, when they’re still living under their parents’ roofs, following rules that prevent them from engaging in the kind of opportunities that teach people about themselves. You barely have the freedom to leave your own hometown as a kid, and I can say this for certain: no matter where you’re from, be it LA or the boondocks of Appalachia, you have to see the rest of the world to truly understand it and yourself.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Setting coming-of-age films in high school, while it makes some sense as you approach adulthood, puts a limit on how much characters can understand about themselves because they haven’t had a chance to branch out and experience the real world. It exists only as a nebulous concept beyond their reach, something they think they understand when they get the keys to their first car or kiss that boy they’ve had a crush on all year. (Spoiler alert, girl: he ain’t shit.) The older I get, the more I realize that these films, good as they are, are selling an ideal, not any kind of honesty.

But college? That odd void of a space between childhood and real adulthood? Now, there’s your ticket.

Whether you pursued higher education or not, there’s no denying that college offers opportunities with the independence and separation from family that it gives, and I’d argue that movies about “finding yourself” and coming of age should be set in that period, when young adults are able to make mistakes on their own, without the guidance of family. There’s more potential in a place where rules are nebulous and hard to determine, much like life itself is, and a space like college offers young adults a safety net to experiment without the consequences of the real world, but under the same sets of circumstances.

Take, for example, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, an underrated gem from 2016 with a heavy-hitter cast. Structurally, it’s kind of a perfect coming-of-age film: far more than Linklater’s previous work on Dazed and Confused, which is the perfect example of a film that suffers from its high school setting. There are plenty of college films you could list off the top of your head — Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, etc. — but they tend to associate newfound freedom with three basic things: sex, drugs, and overall disaster. It’s usually a boys’ club of superficial nonsense, though Everybody Wants Some!! manages to avoid that fate. I credit Linklater’s deft hand at directing other genres — romance and comedy and even animation — for his sophisticated look at one of the most pivotal times in a young adult’s life, even if it is through the lens of terrible mullets and the world’s most ill-advised disco dancing.

Everybody Wants Some!! bottles all the excitement and terror that comes with starting a new phase of life, as college freshman and baseball player Jake (Blake Jenner) moves into an off-campus house with his teammates the weekend before classes begin in 1980, and is forced to reckon with his new place in the world. Linklater follows the young player as he embarks on a journey to find himself on move-in weekend, tossing him from possible clique to possible clique in the form of clubs the team frequents in their tiny Texas town. Compared to the other players — including stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), team captain McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), and philosophizer-cum-womanizer Finnegan (Glen Powell with a horrific mustache) — Blake lacks an adult identity. He’s unable to lean on his identity as a high school hotshot baseball player (something his teammates actively make fun of him for), and with his entire life laid out in front of him, the possibilities are endless, all filtered through the lens of the large and varied personalities he’s going to be living with for the next four years.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Compared to Dazed and Confused, in which the graduating seniors are still intrinsically tied to their high school identities by hazing the incoming freshmen (most of which has aged incredibly poorly, imo), Everybody Wants Some!! is fueled not by a particularly interesting plot, but by how many incredible fuck-ups the baseball team can fit into a span of three days before classes start because they exist in a liminal space that allows them to experiment… even if said “experiment” includes hitting golf balls off the porch roof of the baseball house.

There are no parents to cramp anyone’s style, or major life events to mold their behavior around. For the first time in Jake’s life, he’s got complete freedom, and he won’t be controlled by the demands of some person or social strata. Even within the “clique” he’s found himself in — the baseball players — it seems that no two people are the same, reflecting the reality of life in college. Even the people in your major will turn out fundamentally different from you, taking different classes and hanging out with different people, even if you all live in the same house. There’s no guarantee on anything in life, and at the end of move-in weekend, his shit utterly rocked from a weekend of dancing and drinking, Jake finds himself without a real, defined future beyond the classes of the next four years, and he falls asleep (in the middle of his first class) with a smile on his face, content to figure things out as he goes.

But college coming-of-age films stretch even further back than Linklater, with one of my favorites being directed by — big surprise — a woman. Before he was Madmartigan or Doc Holliday or Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, Val Kilmer was Chris Knight in Martha Coolidge’s 1985 classic Real Genius, a story about a senior slacker and all-around genius who’s realized that there’s more to life than just his degree.

Despite his smarts, all Chris cares about is finding ways to creatively fulfill himself until he graduates — ways that include, among others, throwing a “tanning invitational” in the school auditorium and turning the hallway of the STEM dorm into an ice rink, much to the chagrin of his advisor (William Atherton). It’s these endeavors that he recruits Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), a fifteen-year-old fellow genius and incoming freshman, to help fulfill. Through his eyes, we learn the lesson of the film: Mitch is (naturally) filled with anxiety about doing well, impressing people, and living up to the standards set for him as a young genius. Perhaps it’s the result of a different coming-of-age film where he achieved so much in such a short time that he thought he had it made, but under Chris’s wing, he realizes that not everything is about achieving your ideal future, or finding happiness at sixteen, or even getting a good grade on a final project. He learns instead that yeah, Chris is right. Not everything is that serious, and coming into your own doesn’t mean having everything figured out.

And really, how many times have you heard a character in a coming-of-age film yell “I’m depressed!” with as much verve as Val Kilmer? That feels like the real coming-of-age mood.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Among the many reviews I’ve left for that film on Letterboxd (listen, blame Top Gun: Maverick), my first one still sticks out to me the most: a simple, easy, “that’s just what college is like.” While it absolutely counts as a dumb quip for the sake of being clever on Letterboxd — see also: similar reviews for Everybody Wants Some!! — I mean it, completely and utterly. I don’t remember my senior prom, or my graduation, beyond a couple of vague memories and photos that prove why chopping my hair into a pixie cut was a great idea.

But I do remember watching people sled down the quad in college using dining hall trays, and putting on Watch What Happens Live! with my freshman roommate, and all the times I tortured my favorite professor by playing “Hotel California” on the student radio. I remember those things with much the same fondness that I do the plots of college films like those I’ve mentioned, and even others: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the post-graduate film to end all post graduate films, Legally Blonde, in which Reese Witherspoon completely changes the course of her life at the end of college, something virtually unheard of in coming-of-age films, or any other genre for that matter.

There’s a softness to these kinds of films that I feel far outweighs the typical coming of age film, a more realistic lesson that coming into your own can simply mean learning to love the life you’re living in the moment, surrounded by friends and the opportunity to be yourself. No one I know had themselves figured out at the end of college, much less high school. Hell, I’m twenty-five now and I’m still barely finding my footing. I’ve interviewed Val Kilmer himself (yes, really) but I still live with my parents. I do my own taxes but I can’t cook for shit. There are still so many things I haven’t figured out, and while terrifying, it’s also deeply exciting.

There’s a mystery in the unknown of college, something fascinating about that black hole void of existence that few filmmakers have chosen to exploit. The void of the future can be a scary, dark thing, but also a special one, filled with surprises beyond your wildest imagination — surprises that, given the right writer and director, could serve to create far more compelling stories, ones that prove that the world is ever-changing, and people are too, so quit worrying so much, kid. You’re gonna be just fine.

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