Sitting in a quiet corner of the teen genre — away from crude comedies, gory slashers and believe-in-yourself tweeners—is the coming-of-age film. Sometimes it stars a single protagonist, but more often it’s a group at the apex of its adolescence. The end result is always earnest, heartfelt sentiment, and the best ones manage to sell it with a few scrappy characters—tough, hardscrabble kids growing up poorer than their friends or burned by divorce, or death—and screenplays and directors that treat the subject matter, and the audience, as seriously as any historical drama.
This week offers two potential additions to the canon. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants follows four friends through a summer spent apart; they stay connected through a pair of thrift-store jeans that fits all of them. It arrives as terrific counter-programming against the Star Wars juggernaut and sepiafest Cinderella Man. (Yes, we get that the plot hinges on magical pants.) Based on the young adult novel by Ann Brashares, it has a built-in audience that extends one step further, through shrewd casting: among its stars are two icons for the WB set, Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls, and one of America’s best young actors, Amber Tamblyn of the just-cancelled Joan of Arcadia.
Also opening and looking just as promising is Lords of Dogtown, written by Dogtown and Z-Boys’ Stacy Peralta and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen). This Dogtown follows the teenaged Zephyr skateboard team in 1970s Venice, California, as they deal with skateboarding’s increasing popularity and their astronomical rise to success as a result. Its casting is also smart, though its three leads come from independent films rather than network television: Emile Hirsch (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), Victor Rasuk (Raising Victor Vargas) and John Robinson (Elephant) star as Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Peralta, the most famous of the Z-boys.
John Hughes turned coming of age into a cottage industry—and his muse, Molly Ringwald, into a star—writing a mid-’80s run of films set in suburban high schools. These include a handful of classics like Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but Hughes’ The Breakfast Club is a seminal entry in the genre, with such staying power that it was paid tribute by Degrassi last year, 19 years after the movie was released. Five stereotypes—geek, jock, weirdo, queen bee and badass—locked together in Saturday detention have no choice but to interact, though connections never come easily.
Stand by Me (1986) has less depth but more grit, thanks to source material provided by Stephen King—when he wasn’t such a hack—and steady direction by Rob Reiner. A kid gets hit by a train and four boys set off down the tracks to find the body. The underrated Now and Then (1995), directed by TV vet Lesli Gatter, features four childhood friends (Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Melanie Griffith and Rita Wilson) reunite for the birth of Wilson’s child. The movie is mostly a flashback set in the summer of 1970, when they’re pre-teens. Similar plots and themes are also used to always heartbreaking, sometimes terrifically funny effect in the Catholic school fable The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), with sections animated by Todd McFarlane; Footloose (1984), in which Kevin Bacon just wants to dance but his new hometown has made it illegal; Foxes (1980), with Jodie Foster as the laidback leader of a quartet of downtown LA kids; Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), a poignant look at senior year, written by Cameron Crowe; Little Darlings (1980), where Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol race to lose their virginity at summer camp; and Say Anything (1989), which made John Cusack into a heartthrob. There are dozens more.
These films manage to connect with demographics beyond their marketing plans for the same reason so many adults gravitate to Pixar films: the subject matter is treated with intelligence, respect and above all, sincerity. Everybody can relate to being a teenager, and while the day-to-day problems endured by Tracy in Thirteen are of a harsher variety than those faced by Claire in The Breakfast Club, the fundamentals are the same. We’ve all lived through the unrequited crushes, death, burgeoning sexuality, divorce and self-esteem issues that accompany growing up.
Coming-of-age films, then, speak universally. Their creators are savvy enough to understand that using an overplayed pop song on the credits and planting tabloid cover stars in the cast may equal a win on opening weekend, but not a movie that means anything to anybody. Such an acute sense of art is rare in the whole of cinema, and it is these makers who reflect our lives back to us.