On Coming of Age Movies. Films Reviewed: An Education, Fish Tank

Coming of age themes have been around for a long time, but they’re still popular. You probably already know all about this, but it’s the old story of a young man faced with a dilemma or an unrequited love, or an opponent or a hard to reach goal… that he eventually overcomes – or not – but ends up somehow learning from it, and growing up a bit. Think of movies ranging from Breaking Away and Old Yeller, to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Lean on Me, and The Outsiders, to more recent ones like L.I.E. and Igby Goes Down, or even Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which just opened.

These kind of movies are fun to watch because you get to experience the new discoveries, fresh views, amd the adventures that the hero is going through for the first time; as opposed to a "slice of life" movie where everything is the same, not new.

Well, coming of age stories have been talked about a lot over the past year, mainly because of the death of two of the most famous proponents of that theme – I mean, of course, the late JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye, and the director and writer John Hughes, known for his teen comedies in the 1980’s.

Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield is a rebellious, troubled teenager who runs away from a boarding school, to get away from all the phoniness, cliquishness, and superficiality he saw there. Some people were so moved by this novel that they said it changed their life. (I’m not one of those people, but I did like the novel when I first read it.) There’s even a rumour of a movie version, now that the reclusive writer — who always resisted that — is dead.

Another kind of coming-of-age story was the hallmark of the much-loved "icon of the ’80’s" John Hughes. There’s been a great outpouring of grief over the end of his innocent, young rebels in movies like 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club.

Well, It’s always sad when people die young, but John Hughes was an awful director with a non-stop stream of terrible, conservative, faux-rebel dreck, who co-opted fake punk/ new wave fashions to make his nasty, small-town characters seem more hip.

He was unsympathetic to the nerdy characters and the outcasts, and instead seemed to glorify bullying, and promote conformity. "Losers" were not doing well, but it was their own
fault. Ferris Bueller, the rich, successful and popular teenager (from Hughes’s best movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decides one day — brimming with smirking entitlement — to do whatever he wants… because he can. Ferris Bueller was a Reagan-ish personification of US exceptionalism.

Expensive cars were what was really important. Women were treated to a backslide to the 1950’s, Happy Days-style, as if the feminist movement had never happened.

His movies later devolved even more with the Home Alone series, where a brat gets to run rampant out of greed and self-centredness, as long as he is juxtaposed against even more "evil" villains — meaning losers who "deserve" to lose.

In the world of coming of age movies, I think it’s fair to call John Hughes the Anti-Salinger.

But opposite though those archetypes may be, Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller do share one trait – they’re both teenaged boys, not girls. You see, coming of age stories about young women are a much rarer breed.

Let’s look at two current, female, coming-of-age movies.

An Education, by Danish Director Lone Scherfig, tells the story of Jenny, an English school girl in the early sixties whose father wants her to get into Oxford. That’s her only goal. She’s 16, smart, pretty, and middle class, but longs for the great things in life. She meets a much older man, David. He’s a bit sleazy, a bit louche, but to Jenny he’s glamorous and important with jaded friends who take her on cultural adventures away from her suburban town. He’s going to take her away, to take her to Paris. Eventually reality sets in and she’s forced to deal with unanticipated problems and twists.

This is an enjoyable movie, with a good story, and great acting, especially Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and it’s been nominated for an Academy award for best picture.

The only problem is that it’s a little too soft and fluffy and nice, and even its touches of bitter reality seem tinged with more nostalgia than grit. I kept expecting Hugh Grant to pop his head into a scene and say “Ooh sorry, I must be in the wrong picture…” It just has that feel to it. But it’s a good movie anyway.

Another British coming of age picture is Fish Tank, Directed by Andrea Arnold, which opens today.

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high rise council flat. She has an unspoken sense of justice: punish the bad, help the needy, free the enslaved. Her hobbies seem to be drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing little things, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to become a dancer) She can find her way, unseen, through vacant lots and empty apartments, but she’s still strangely naïve about how people get along in the real world.

Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

Early in the movie Fish Tank, Connor drives his new family out to a hidden piece of land. Mia follows him into the water while her mother stands disapprovingly on the shore. He reaches into the pond and pulls out a trusting fish with his bare hands, just like that. Then he pierces it with a skewer. The movie’s full of unforgettable scenes that carry the story along. (In fact all the scenes are unforgettable)

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, (who played IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in the movie Hunger) as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is. Beautifully shot, this movie just blew me away.

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  1. […] fate. The cast is amazing – especially Flemish actor Christian Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) and Carey Mulligan (An Education) as Bathsheba. Danish director Vinterberg (The Hunt) presents it all as a straightforward record of […]


  2. […] Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One […]


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