Sunday, August 4, 2013

Way, Way, Back to the Coming-of-Age Comedy-Drama

Even for those who didn't "come-of-age" in the 1980s, that era is considered the Golden Age of the coming-of-age films, whether it's comedy or drama - or more likely both. We largely have John Hughes to thank for that, though people such as Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling have a lot to do with it as well. As a teacher I am both pleased and amazed that, when polled, contemporary teens cite John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club as the movies that most resonate with them and reflect their lives. Those films are twenty-five years old - and they still matter. They matter and they are still popular because, simply put, they are true.

Having grown up in the 1980s, I was privileged to see most of the great teen films in the theater. And it's worth noting some quality films that preceded Hughes' work. No can argue with the premiere position that Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High holds in the genre.  I also have to give a nod to the Bill Murray classic Meatballs. And this is not to say there haven't been a smattering of teen films in the post-Hughes era that didn't also serve the genre well. Some of the best post-'80s films that treat adolescence and the loss of innocence honestly - yet in an entertaining manner - are Ten Things I Hate About You and Amy Heckerlings Clueless. 

Recently, there have been several films that accurately capture the ethos/pathos of the classic teen films. One of the best is Easy A, which did justice to the genre by very openly paying homage to John Hughes and the 80's era films.  Some of the references are so very Hughes-esque that to not blatantly refer to the allusions would have almost seemed cheesy. Yet, instead the movie comes off as a great teen film. Notably, the writers of these recent films clearly grew up on Hughes' films and are determined to honor the indelible stamp that Hughes put on the teen film.  Last year's Perks of Being a Wallflower by writer-director Stephen Chbosky was an admirable work. In fact, the novel was so good that I long resisted seeing the film, that is until I realized that Chbosky was directing and that he was a screenwriter before he became a novelist.

Now, in the waning days of summer, Hollywood has brought us two films that may just signal the return of the coming-of-age movie.  The Way Way Back and Spectacular Now appear poised to bring back the classic teen film in the spirit of John Hughes. Both of these films have that poignant intimacy with our insecurities that are testament to the great coming--of-age films.  Though I have yet to see The Spectacular Now, I have seen the trailer and it actually aired when I went to see The Way Way Back. The latter is a truly sweet and thoughtful story of angst and loss of innocence in a summer by the shore. The film uses several great motifs and metaphors during the story of Duncan's summer of maturity. And, fans of the movie Meatballs will definitely respond to the role played by Sam Rockwell, better known as the villain from Iron Man 2. Rockwell's portrayal of Owen, the waiting-to-grow-up slacker who manages the water park Water Whizz where Duncan takes a part-time job, is the glue that holds the film together.  The character of Owen is a classic re-casting of Bill Murray's Tripper Harrison, right up to his adolescent pining for the more mature female manager with whom he flirts, but must ultimately grow up to actually connect with.  Rockwell's Owen is every bit as entertaining as Murray's Tripper, with a constant stream of quotable one liners that make him cool and lovable while also exposing his immaturities. Overall, Rockwell and his portrayal of Owen guide the film much as Owen guides Duncan's path to individuality, and, on that path, The Way, Way Back becomes an endearing addition to the time-honored genre.

And, of course, I'm still looking forward to the story of ... The Spectacular Now.

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