Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Answer to the Latest Critcwire Survey: Coming of Age Stories

This week’s question asked what the best coming of ages stories are – in honor of the recently released The Spectacular Now.

I’ll get one answer out of the way right now – and that’s The Catcher in the Rye. The question didn’t ask for coming of age movies, although that is implied, but J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was a very important book to me. I read it a couple of times as a teenager and once in my early 20s – and loved it every time. I often wonder if I were to read it again now – at 31 – if I would still love it, or if I would now think Holden Caufield is a spoiled, selfish brat – I think of the later is what has prevented me from reading it. And from a TV perspective, you cannot get better than the single perfect season of Freaks and Geeks.

But in terms of movies, there are a lot of great coming of age movies. There are a lot of choices – Peter Yates’ Breaking Away, Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Jason Reitman’s Juno, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Brian DePalma’s Carrie, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and the granddaddy of them all Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who picked any of these movies – more so perhaps even than most the coming of age film is a very personal choice.

But I’m thinking of three slightly more offbeat choices. The first being David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is a coming of age story for Kyle McLaughlin – although when he gets a glimpse of the adult world, he probably wishes he hadn’t been in such a rush to grow up. And Laura Dern’s pure innocent grows up a little bit as well – even discovering a slightly kinky side. Another offbeat choice is Spielberg’s A.I. – which is about a robot who comes of age – or at least is programmed to come of age. The film asks some rather quietly profound questions – and remains Spielberg’s most underrated masterpiece.

But the answer I’m going with is Alexander Payne’s Election. Setting a coming of age story in high school is pretty standard – but this time, it’s not the students coming of age. Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick (still far and away her best performance) doesn’t learn a damned thing in the movie. I suppose the siblings played by Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell learn something – but not all that much. No, Election is about Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister’s coming of age – although far too late to do him much good. By the time he’s learned his lesson, he’s lost his wife and his job, and is starting all over again – and in the hilarious last scene of the movie, he shows that perhaps, he hasn’t quite grown up just yet. With so many movies these days about overgrown man children – that for the most part celebrate how wonderful and funny these 30 year old who act like teenagers are (or perhaps worse, that they simply need the “love of a good woman” to grow up), Election stands out even more today than it did back in 1999. And because I’m now in my 30s, it speaks to me more now than those movies of teenagers reaching maturity.

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