Friday, October 7, 2011

Bah to the Bildungsroman

"Mon Oncle Antoine" left me cold. "The 400 Blows" failed to impress. Louis Malle's "Murmur of the Heart" was totally unmemorable. And I don't have any idea what I was supposed to get out of "Leolo." The common thread to all these movies? They're about teenage boys growing up and dealing with prickly things like sexual maturation, disillusionment, and loss of innocence. And lately, I've found them increasingly boring, tedious, and self-involved. These movies play out like self-indulgent memoirs, light on plot and heavy on incidence. There are some I've enjoyed, like Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life," Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," and the glorious "Rushmore," but lately I feel as though I've had a serious falling out with the coming-of-age films, the cinema bildungsromans.

What about coming-of-age films about girls, you ask? They've been rarer for the simple reason that female directors have been less common, and young girls' sexuality has always been a considerably more taboo subject in most cultures. I'm more forgiving of them for that, and because I admit that it is easier for me to relate to protagonists of my own gender when dealing with this kind of subject matter. Some I've liked include Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl" and Jane Campion's "Angel at My Table." Then again, there have been titles like Maurice Pialat's "A Nous Amours" and "Sixteen Candles" that I found I couldn't connect with at all.

Bias and personal experience probably play in to this considerably. I'm a grown woman whose tastes have changed drastically over the years. When I was younger, I thought the films of John Hughes were deep, and youthful angst was a potent emotional wellspring. And then I grew up and worked through the issues that everybody does in growing up, and suddenly the problems of your average fifteen-year-old got a lot less pertinent and interesting. I found this especially true of media dealing with adolescent sexual awakening, because I was one of those academically focused kids who barely dated in high school and didn't have anything resembling a real romantic relationship until I got to college. I never could relate to those people who equated growing up with becoming sexually active.

But even when sex isn't involved, the generational divide looms large. When did high schoolers get so young? I watched Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" the other day, gaping at the baby-faced actors, though the film wasn't made that long after I left high school myself. The older I get, the younger the kids look, and conversely people in their twenties and thirties don't seem all that mature anymore. I guess this is one of the reasons why so many movies and television shows like using twenty-somethings to play high school students - so the old fogey thirty-somethings in the audience can better imagine themselves in teenage shoes again, and perhaps reassure themselves that they haven't gotten that old.

But then again, all the films I listed were made for adults, and are told with a lot of nostalgia from a very adult point of view. I'm not talking about a disconnect with media actually aimed at teenagers, like "Twilight" or "iCarly," which would be totally understandable. It's my problems with the subject matter of young adulthood itself that worry me. I might not be fifteen anymore, but why should that matter as far as appreciating a film about a fifteen-year-old protagonist? I don't have any trouble with films starring older actors, small children, or those recently dubbed "Men of a Certain Age." Clearly there's more going on here than me getting more temporally remote from my high school days.

The culprit might just be fatigue regarding this kind of story. Sometimes when you watch too many bad westerns or murder mysteries, they can all start to look the same and their common problems become more glaring. Maybe I've just been watching too many mediocre films telling the same story of youthful growing pains. Coming-of-age stories are common and plentiful. Indie cinema often seems like an endless stream of them, from "The Wackness" to "Igby Goes Down" to "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." A few celebrated titles in the genre have definitely been oversold. "Mon Oncle Antoine" is the best Canadian film of all time? Sorry, but no. Not even close. My growing disdain is probably just a sign that I need to take a break from the cinematic travails of frustrated teenagers for a while.

Maybe I'm seriously overthinking this and should evaluate these movies individually on their own terms. Maybe I just need to seek out a few more good ones to help counterbalance the bad. On that note, what did I do with my copy of "Heathers"?

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