Growing Up in the Movies

Slide 1: Introduction

At the start of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s comedy It’s Kind of a Funny Story, our sad, near-suicidal hero, Craig (Keir Gilchrist) tries to check himself into a teen help center, but gets pushed into the adult psych ward instead. There he finds himself among a dizzying parade of crazy, comic and carelessly groomed adults, a world for which he finds himself ill prepared. He mistakes fellow patient Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) for a doctor who prescribes “bird-dogging chicks” as a cure for his sadness. His elderly roommate barely speaks. Others seem like they can’t stop talking. As Craig tries to figure out who to trust and who to avoid, he unexpectedly in all this chaos finds himself and his future. The short stay at Three North psych ward that moves Craig from troubled teen to hopeful adult is a passage many teens have taken in the movies. Sometimes the journey is a fantasy, like the Technicolor trip that Dorothy is whisked up into in The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes it’s a farce, like in the endless antics Andy Hardy gets himself into as he tries to pass himself off as grown up. Sometimes it’s a tragedy, as with the kids in Buñuel’s Los Olividados, whose childhoods are violently taken from them before they even experience them. And sometimes it’s as subtle and internal as just growing up, as in Pump Up The Volume.  But in all these movies, the young adults who start off confused by the complexities of the adult world end up as adults, ready, for better or worse, to make that world their own.

Slide 2: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Dorothy, the heroine played by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, is a teenager fed up with being treated like a little girl. An orphan stuck on a secluded farm in the middle of Kansas, she is being looked after by her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, who don't have the time to give her much attention. The final straw comes when the local harridan, Miss Gulch, tries to get Dorothy's dog Toto put down after the little rascal bit her. So, Dorothy decides to run away from home in search of "some place where there isn't any trouble."  That world, of course, turns out to be Oz, a foreign, fantastical land which teaches her “there’s no place like home.”  The original story, penned by L. Frank Braun, first appeared in 1900 as the first in a series of books about Oz, a magical world that many read as a political allegory of the time. But the childhood fantasy elements were so potent that the story was adapted into various stage and screen versions, with the most famous being the 1939 MGM film version, a film that launched Judy Garland’s career. Indeed Critic Sean Axmaker writes, “MGM was the dream factory of the 1930s and 1940s and this was its most imaginative screen dream, but it is Judy Garland who grounds the fantastic sights and delirious imagery in the human story of a winsome, plucky, melancholy girl who dreams of visiting lands outside her humdrum neighborhood and, when that dream comes true, wistfully yearns for home. Garland’s Dorothy embodies the fantasy of all children who dream of leaving the cocoon of their protected lives and spreading their wings.”

Slide 3: Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941)

Mickey Rooney first portrayed the quintessential Hollywood teen, Andy Hardy, in the 1937 movie A Family Affair (based on the play Skipping by Aurania Rouverol). The film proved so popular that Rooney was called back over the next 21 years to star in a total of 16 films centered on the romantic misadventures of young Andy Hardy, the rambunctious son of Judge James Hardy of the small American town of Carvel. In most of the films, Andy, anxious to be taken serious, pretends to be more of an adult than he really is. In his eleventh film, the 1941 Life Begins for Andy Hardy, young Andy moves to New York City to seek his fortune without a college education. After landing a job at a stockbroker’s office, Andy starts to make a mess of everything. His affair with the office receptionist proves a fiasco. His big-spender attitude quickly drains his bank account. But perhaps the most adult aspect appears in his friendship with a male dancer called Jimmy, who dies. In the original script, the character commits suicide, but censors altered it to be a heart attack. But as Jeffrey P. Dennis points out in his book We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness, perhaps even more sobering than death for poor Andy was the possibility of homosexual desire: “Andy concludes that ‘a fella should go ahead and do what he should do in this world, and not the things that are the biggest, most fun, and exciting.’ The message is clear: homoromance may be big, fun and exciting, but it can only lead to tragedy. A fella should do what he should do in this world, reject Arcadia (or rather, the tawdry New York night world) for Carvel, and college, and a heteronormative future.”

Slide 4: Los Olvidados (1950)

Luis Buñuel, a filmmaker most noted for his surrealist and satirical approach, made a film rooted in harsh realism with Los Olividados, a portrait of a gang of street children living in extreme poverty in the slums of Mexico City. The movie, which won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951, told the story of children who, ignored by their unloving parents, exist in a moral vacuum where they run wild. The film’s protagonists are El Jaibo, a violent, angry young gang leader just out of juvenile detention, and Pedro, one of his friends who wants to lead a better life. Despite Bunuel’s unflinching portrayal of the sometimes brutal acts of his characters, he nevertheless sees them as victims of the adults who have forced them to grow up too soon. Film critic Nick Schager writes of Los Olvidados, “Despite its unwillingness to succumb to preachy sentimentality, Buñuel’s film is heartbreakingly sympathetic to its pint-size ne’er-do-wells, whose troublesome antics are positioned as the unavoidable consequence of unloving and uncaring upbringings. Pedro’s (Alfonso Mejía) penchant for committing petty crimes with his fellow hoodlums is vividly portrayed as a petulant response to the cold, violent mother who refuses to reciprocate his love, while the devoted Big Eyes (Mário Ramírez) is left abandoned by his father in a busy market square.” The response to the film in the U.S. was one of shock (the New York Times called it a “brutal and unrelenting picture of poverty and juvenile crime”), while in Mexico City it played only for three days as a result of the uproar it caused and the desire of the government and those above the poverty line to suppress such a depiction.

Slide 5: The 400 Blows (1959)

François Truffaut announced himself – and the French New Wave – in 1959 with this poignant depiction of the troubled childhood of Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s screen alter ego who was played in this and four subsequent films by Jean-Pierre Léaud. In The 400 Blows, Antoine is a sensitive, well-intentioned 12-year-old schoolboy who is thought by his teachers to be a troublemaker (the film’s title is a reference to a French phrase about raising hell). His bad luck (being caught with a naked picture being passed around class) and poor judgment (skipping school, lying about his absence, petty theft) lead him from one bad situation to another, and finally to his placement in a center for juvenile delinquents. While the parents in Los Olvidados ignore and maltreat the young protagonists, here Antoine’s parents rid themselves of parental responsibility by signing him over to the juvenile justice system; in both movies, children are not allowed to remain children, but are cruelly and prematurely thrust into adult roles. The film famously ends with a freeze frame shot of Antoine running towards the sea, a moment, writes John Conomos in Senses of Cinema, “of ecstatic delight, in that it expresses Antoine's newly found freedom from the constraints of a non-caring adult world. … Then, suddenly, we are behind Antoine as he faces the sea in the distant. This darkened full shot of the teenage protagonist suggests the underlying co-existing sadness and beauty in his life.” Truffaut’s movie, Conomos writes, “tells us in simple compassionate terms a collective moral truth that we know in our bones but is often swept under the carpet of adult conformity - that a child entering adulthood amounts to a second painful birth.  We care for Antoine, for most of us in some way have experienced the light and darkness of his childhood.”

Slide 6: Harold and Maude (1971)

In the films we have looked at so far about teens in an adult world, it has always been a case of the protagonist(s) moving from childhood to maturity, however that is not the case with Harold and Maude. In Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic – a film which bombed when it first went on release but was “reclaimed” by fans who stumbled on and fell in love with the film at campus screenings and in rep houses – our hero, Harold (the ashen-faced Bud Cort) has long since abandoned childhood. Sent away to boarding school as an adolescent, Harold was starved of love and, ironically, felt most happy when, after a fire at his school, he was reported as a fatality of the blaze. “I decided then I enjoyed being dead,” Harold says, explaining why he has faked his death numerous times since then. While Harold is a young man who represents the world of the dead, Maude, an irreverent, irrepressible 79-year-old proto-hippie, is symbolic of the world of the living. “A lot of people enjoy being dead,” Maude tells Harold. “But they are not dead really. They're just backing away from life. …Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an "L." Give me an "I."  Give me a "V." Give me an "E." LIVE!!!!!” Both through this rallying cry and by her infectious example, Maude helps Harold join the world of adults by getting him to embrace life, rather than death. In an appraisal of the Ashby's movie on the Film 4 website, the reviewer writes, “If on first appearance this is a hippie movie, with noses thumbed at the usual bogey figures – clergy, cops, the military (Harold has a possibly insane one-armed soldier uncle) – before long it becomes apparent the film is something else. Maude is clearly Harold's 'therapist' – and her soulful, devil-may-care regimen gradually loosens his joints and breathes life into him.”

Slide 7: Stand by Me (1986)

When teens are ushered into the adult world, death (Harold and Maude) and a lack of parental presence (The Wizard of Oz, Los Olvidados, The 400 Blows) often are the cause. Or, in the case of Stand By Me, it's both of the above. Rob Reiner's 1986 movie, based on the Stephen King novella The Body, is about a ragtag group of teens that goes looking for the dead body of a missing boy rumored to be out in the woods. Gordie LaChance (Wil Wheaton), shunned by his father after the death of Gordie's favored, older brother Denny (John Cusack), is the leader of the group, which is made up of Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell). Like Gordie, the other boys also have problems––Chris is from a family of criminals and alcoholics, Teddy wears a hearing aid because his mentally disturbed father maimed him, and Vern is bullied because of his weight – and over the course of their rite of passage quest for the body, we see that they rely on each other more than their families. Writing at Pop Matters, Nikki Tranter says of Stand By Me, “This idea of realizing -- to a degree -- the complexities of adulthood within childhood and the effects of this most problematic of human transitions is at the core of this film. Each of these four kids …undergoes moments of genuine emotional transformation in the film. This is especially true for Gordie, who learns, only by looking back over the years…,  that the biggest lesson, the strength gained from childhood friends, experiencing the same changes as you in the same innocent time, is impossible to replicate in adulthood. The film doesn't triumph youth. Instead, it confronts the pain of childhood directly, without manufacturing the sympathy afforded his characters through some poor-me kind of sentimentality.

Slide 8: Pump Up the Volume (1990)

As a lonely, shy high school kid in a new town, what’s the best way to deal with your isolation and all-consuming angst? Well, if you’re Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, you start a pirate radio show and give voice to your frustrations of your generation through a profane alter ego by the name of Hard Harry. Having played a devilish high school murderer the year before in Heathers, Slater showed his range in Allan Moyle’s movie playing introverted, nerdy Mark Hunter, whose radio persona allows him to vent nightly: “Consider the life of a teenager - you have parents, teachers telling you what to do, you have movies, magazines and TV telling you what to do, but you know what you have to do. Your job, your purpose is to get accepted, get a cute girlfriend, think up something great to do with the rest of your life. What if you're confused and can't imagine a career? What if you're funny looking and can't get a girlfriend? You see, no-one wants to hear it. But the terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.” Broadcasting first to no one in particular, Mark slowly gains a large audience of his peers, and learns – when one depressed boy commits suicide after hearing one of his disillusioned rants – that becoming a role model, a spokesperson, a figure of influence – gives him adult responsibilities which he has to understand and respect. In her review of the film in the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Unlike Heathers, a satiric treatment of teen suicide, Pump Up the Volume is passionately caring. It's a howl from the heart, a relentlessly involving movie that gives a kid every reason to believe that he or she can come of age. It appreciates the pimples and pitfalls of this frightening passage, the transit commonly known as adolescence.”

Slide 9: Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson is a fan of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, and makes a nod to Ashby's movie not only in his use of Cat Stevens' music in Rushmore but in the way that there is a curious reversal of traditional roles in this tale of a young man and his mentor. In Harold and Maude, there is an ironic reversal in that the young hero personifies death and the aged mentor life, and in Rushmore similarly the film's (anti-?)hero Max Fischer (Jason Schwarzman) is arguably more of an adult figure than Herman Blume (Bill Murray), his friend and benefactor-turned-nemesis who teaches him about the workings of the grown-up world, and who has something of a child-like quality. A dominant figure at his school because of his prodigious extracurricular activities (and despite his mediocre scholastic abilities), Fischer sets about trying to woo and win the heart of a teacher at his school, Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams), but finds himself out of his depth, not least because Blume becomes a competitor for her affections. In the process of his excessive competitiveness with Blume, he learns about the raw truths of adulthood and more clearly sees his place in the world. “You could argue, I guess, that the only things Rushmore has on its mind are hackneyed -- growing up is tough, and those of us who live too much in our own heads ultimately have to come to grips with the outside world,” writes Andrew O'Hehir at Salon. “But comedy is largely about the journey, not the destination, and few contemporary comedies provide as weird and as generous a trip as this one. Max's hilariously skewed imitations of adult behavior … remind us how much of our lives we spend performing roles that don't suit us, that make us feel ridiculous. In laughing at Max, we're laughing at our own vanity and pretensions, in their way as outlandish as his. Comedy can have no higher calling than that.”

Slide 10: Almost Famous (2001)

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous told the somewhat story of a rock-loving teen, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who gets a commission to write an article about life on tour with one of his favorite bands from Rolling Stone magazine – who are completely unaware of the fact that he’s only 15 years old. The pretext of the movie would be somewhat ludicrous and implausible were it not for the fact that Crowe himself was a writer for that very magazine when his voice was barely breaking, and all the experiences in the movie – the tour bus antics, drinking, drugs, girls, wild parties – are highly autobiographical. As in so many coming of age movies, the hero has a guru/mentor figure and here it’s real-life legendary journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who counsels Miller not only on what bands to listen to but how to deal with conflicts between his loyalty to the band (“friendship is the booze they feed you”) and his duty to be an honest and accurate journalist. In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, William is a kid who has to act like an adult – surrounded by adults acting like big kids – and be taken seriously by them: "I'm not sweet!" he shouts at Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the groupie he has a crush on. "I'm dark and mysterious." Reviewing the film for Time, Richard Corliss wrote, “What gives Crowe's story poignance is his background as a teenage working journalist. At the age when kids are supposed to be feeling those gonadal guitar jolts for the first time, he was standing backstage during a concert, riding the band bus, eliciting sexual confessions from rock Rimbauds. This was a kid's dream. But to live it--to survive it--Crowe had to be a premature grownup.”

Slide 11: Rodger Dodger (2002)

Jesse Eisenberg has made a career out of playing awkward, nervy teens in movies like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland, and he made his movie debut in 2002 playing Nick, a woefully neurotic adolescent, in writer-director Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger. In New York City looking at prospective colleges, small-town Ohio boy Nick hooks up with his uncle Roger (Campbell Scott), who his mother has informed him is a ladies man. 16-year-old Nick appeals to the callous womanizer to help him lose his virginity, and so the unlikely pair hit the singles bars together. “As the movie moves along, Roger and Nick sink lower and lower, picking up a pair of women at a bar, then hitting [Roger’s boss and ex-lover] Joyce's party just in time to mop up the drunks (Roger calls it "winning time"),” wrote Jeff Stark of Salon. “But it's Nick, hunchy, twitchy, and so excited that he looks like he's going to burst, who makes all the right decisions. He wants to get laid, but he doesn't want to turn into a crappy person in the process.” Ultimately, the events of the movie underline the fact that – nervy, tongue-tied and inexperienced as he is – untarnished Nick is far more appealing to women that the amphibian, emotionally immature Roger, who talks a much better game than he plays. Though Roger is supposedly the smooth operator in the world of adult relationships, Nick’s genuine approach is ultimately much more appealing to the women they meet.

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