I love tales of adolescence, but they so often show the stories of only a few. Showcased are a few films which demonstrate more diverse tales of growing up than what we typically see on screen.
Throughout my high school years, I sought out every book, movie, TV show, or graphic novel that I could with a coming-of-age storyline. I built up a world around me through diving into the stories of others.
It was only later that I looked back upon my favourite entertainment media more critically, and recognized that the stories I was hearing were all coming from similar voices. All these indie films and books predominantly took place in the suburbs and in high school hallways, more often than not tilting their lens upon the skinny, quiet white guy.
Coming of age movies are overwhelmingly focused heavily on white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class protagonists, and are often made by people who often hold similarly privileged identities. If these selective stories are the only ones we see about growing up, whose experiences are missing when we think about adolescence?
In more recent years, I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to consume media that features more varied characters and creators. To actively diversity and decolonize my bookshelf, my Netflix queue, my viewing habits. Experiencing stories with diverse casts and makers not only supports marginalized creators, but also promotes empathy through storytelling. And isn’t that what we’re all here for, when we pick up a book or watch a movie? To see the world from a new perspective, and feel connected to the story of somebody outside ourselves?
Below are a few of my favourite coming-of-age films which show viewers a broader scope of what the experience of growing up can be.
I’m sure that you’ve already heard about the magic that is Moonlight. It follows the adolescent life of Chiron, a gay African-American boy growing up in the projects of Florida, as he searches for belonging, fatherhood, and self-acceptance. It’s the first Oscar Best Picture-winner with an all-black cast and an LGBTQ theme. Everything from the nuanced screenplay and pitch-perfect acting to the lush cinematography make this a heartbreakingly rendered portrait of growing up. The people behind it are equally as deserving of your attention: editor Joi McMillon, production designer Hannah Beachler (who also worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade!), and of course director Barry Jenkins. When movies like Moonlight succeed critically and commercially, it opens the floodgates for studios to take a chance on releasing other diverse stories. I know that we’ll be seeing more greatness from the cast and crew of this achingly beautiful film for decades to come.
Girlhood is a French film which zeroes in on fourteen-year old Marieme, who experiences troubles in school as well as a troubled home life. She is taken into the fold of a local girl gang, who offer her protection and status. Marieme (now called Vic by her friends) gets caught up in the world of fighting, drugs, and accelerated adolescence as her world spirals far away from her past life. Despite its tough subjects, Girlhood is a worthwhile watch which shows a side of French life rarely depicted on screen. Female friendship is on full display here: fiery, powerful, and occasionally destructive. The scene featuring the girls dancing in blue light to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, is the emotional highlight of the movie: a tender display of carefree black girls, and a reminder that we all crave a sense of belonging, no matter how fleeting.
This film centres on five orphaned, teenage sisters living Turkish village, where their attempts to live a free-spirited young life are stifled by family members and a restricted society. After being caught playing with boys, the girls find themselves confined at home, barred from school and the outside world. The premise seems similar to The Virgin Suicides, but there’s definitely different issues at play here. The girls are subjected to pressures of forced marriage, social isolation, and abuse. Yet it is their unshakeable bond which is the most powerful part of this story. Shot beautifully with natural light and emotion, it showcases the tender moments and grand actions that come forth when adolescents wish to protect each other.
Set in Brooklyn, Pariah centres on teenaged Alike, a poetry-writing, straight-A student who’s living a bit of a double life. She’s most comfortable in butch clothing and wishes to explore her lesbian identity; however, her religious mother and police officer father keep pushing her towards more feminine friends and forms of expression. The film captures many moments of discovery: finding solace in love, rock music, and friendship. Scenes of break-ups, reconciliation, and intimacy feel truly natural and real. Framed in rich colours and shadow, Pariah delivers gut-punching fights and heartfelt warmth with equal power. It’s a story about a girls’ yearning for freedom, and the messy roads that lead to it.
If you have any movie suggestions for me, leave a comment or tweet me at @haileylenora. I’m always looking for new titles.