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Coming-of-Age Films and the Experience of Adolescence

Posted August 07, 2018

Tags: artself-care

"And that’s what had the biggest impact on me, knowing I’m not alone in feeling lost."


The transition from childhood to adulthood is a universal one, manifesting itself in young people across the globe in biological, emotional, and psychological ways. For some, the word “adolescence” elicits feelings of horror and disgust. For others, nostalgia and recklessness. Additionally, some individuals experience a little bit of both. There’s an impulse to appear well-adjusted, which can be exacerbated by the feeling that others have already achieved this or are otherwise well on their way. This heightened self-consciousness may instill notions of doubt and confusion, and an increased sense of anxiety that these exist. As the desire to be impressive sets in, the realization that this is a fleeting source of positivity follows with it. And with all of the complexities of this period, it can be a painful truth to navigate.

While the experience of growing up and embracing one’s identity may not always be rainbows and roses, it can certainly lend itself to compelling, endearing storytelling. From Nicholas Ray’s iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Wes Anderson’s offbeat Rushmore (1998), coming-of-age films have proven to be a mainstay in Hollywood. Regardless of whether films in this genre tend toward subtle social commentary or opt for blatant escapism, they can do much in the way of allowing viewers to feel understood. For someone teetering on what seems like the edge of triumph and tragedy, hearing an almost eerily relatable line of dialogue or seeing a familiar situation represented can make a world of difference.

I recently got the chance to speak to college students Tuvana Isildar, Michael Wilson, and Daniela Krashenny about their favorite coming-of-age movies, and how these came into play in the context of their own not-too-distant adolescent years. 


What does “coming-of-age” mean to you?

Tuvana: To me it means that you’re finally starting to understand who you are, figuring yourself out, and realizing what kind of person you want to be. Your interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes, etc. It’s also about seeing and recognizing some of the ugliness in the world.

Michael: It’s the period in someone’s life when they say goodbye to the innocence that they held in childhood. It is a time of self-discovery (and the equal amount of confusion that comes with that), reformation and a conscious rejection of naiveté and the way things used to be. This matured understanding can influence one’s perception and one’s relationships with others and with themselves.

Daniela: It’s a story I can see myself in, a story all people can relate to. It reminds me of some part or aspect of growing up.


What makes adolescence such a formative time in your life?

Tuvana: It’s a formative time in my life because it's when I realized a lot about myself and life in general. It's the time when I learned a lot about how the world works, how people work, and how the world isn't always just happy and nice. During these years, I was able to go out on my own and experience things first hand which gave me space to grow without people just trying to teach it to me.

Michael: For me, adolescence happened to align with both of my older siblings moving away to university. I think this may have played a role in my maturation because it forced me to spend a lot of time on my own and helped me become the independent person I am today.

Daniela: Adolescence is so insanely important! It’s the time that we explore, whether it’s innocent or not; it’s a time of finding out what kinds of things you like, what kind of people you like, what kind of person you are. Literally, scientifically and biologically, this is a big time in our developmental process as humans. Our bodies are changing, our mentality is changing constantly, which is why most of us in adolescence go through “phases.” Adolescence is awkward, and although it sometimes is a period in our lives that make us feel like we are lower than low, it's also a period of time in which we feel like we’re on top of the world. We are ignorant about the future while also contemplating it constantly. It’s almost like one big contradiction.


What are some of the emotions you associate most with your experience of adolescence?

Tuvana: Personally, I see it as more negative, like super stressful, scary, depressing and claustrophobic. Although there were good times and more positive feelings, whenever I do think about middle school and high school, I am always overwhelmed with more dark emotions than light ones.

Michael: Honestly, isolation is the strongest word I would use to describe my experience of adolescence. Coming to terms with living a more solitary life at home caused me to feel depressed and empty at times. This was combined with slowly uncovering my sexuality, which on its own is a very isolating and scary process that can leave someone re-evaluating their worth and place in this world.

Daniela: Discomfort and hopefulness are two big ones. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, I was confused about a lot of things like my body and my mind. Anxiety was a confusing concept to me and I hated not understanding it and trying to somehow control it. But I was also extremely hopeful for my future! I was excited for many things, like growing older, finding love, finding friends, exploring the world.


How did you cope with the stressors that come with adolescence? Do you find yourself confronting difficult situations in similar ways?

Tuvana: I found myself shutting people out and not wanting to talk to anyone as well as having very short tempers, especially with my close friends and family. I guess the way I used to cope with it was being by myself and creating a sort of distance. Confronting difficult situations now, I sometimes do fall back into that state of mind and it still does happen, but I try to control it a lot more now than before. 

Michael: I was relatively quiet a lot of the time, and directed any stress and anger I had inwards on myself. Looking back, that wasn’t the best way to handle my emotions, because I would end up needing to release them physically (like throwing things), and then feel guilty.

Daniela: It was hard coping. I don’t think I ever found a solid way to cope, honestly. I found that different coping methods helped, depending on the situation. If a panic attack was coming my way, I’d talk to myself and talk my nerves down. “It’s ok, you’re shaking like crazy, yeah, but like, you’re good, don’t worry, chill out.” This is something that would help because talking to myself in a casual way like this made me feel it was less serious. I think then and even now, distractions were a huge (and probably the best) help. 


What coming-of-age movie most shaped your adolescence, and why?

Tuvana: I love classics like Dirty Dancing, Mean Girls, and 10 Things I Hate About You, but I’d have to say my favorite is Good Will Hunting. It’s so well-made and puts all the raw emotions out there; it also addresses some of the harsher experiences of adolescence. The other films I mentioned were more accessible in a way, though, because they were centered around high school conflicts.

Michael: One of my favorite coming-of-age movies is 13 Going on 30, because I loved watching rom-coms as a kid and I loved the idea of being able to skip ahead to being a functioning adult living in the city with a cool job and cool friends. However, it also displays the negative sides of being an adult and how life isn’t ever going to be as easy as it was when you were in a stroller.

Daniela: So many! It’s almost too difficult for me to name only one movie, because I feel like so much of my adolescence was shaped by so many different storylines and characters from many coming-of-age movies combined. Almost Famous, The Breakfast Club, Now is Good, What a Girl Wants, Mean Girls, and most recently, Moonlight. They all have that “coming of age” feel in common, where the characters are just trying to figure things out as best they can. And that’s what’s had the biggest impact on me, knowing I’m not alone in feeling lost.


What aspects of adolescence do you think coming-of-age movies should explore in the future?

Tuvana: There should definitely be more movies that portray mental illness in an accurate way, without playing on stereotypes or depicting these characters as evil. Also more characters from marginalized backgrounds, and exploring the difficulties of finding acceptance within a different culture.

Michael: In the future, I think more movies should explore sexuality and all the nuances weaved in with it. Love Simon, in all of its cheesy rom-com glory, definitely would’ve helped me when I was a teenager, but I’m glad there are mainstream movies being made that more of today’s youth can identify with. 

Daniela: More LGBT coming-of-age movies! Or at least more characters like that, I know it would mean a lot to LGBT youth out there. Seeing more diversity in race, culture, and socioeconomic status would be great also.


Interested in writing an article for Enlighten? 

Email submissions@greenribbonclub.org for more details.


(The cover photo: "P4070037" by N!(K -- loveforphotography -- is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

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