It just so happened today that I watched three coming of age stories: Let the Right One In, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, and Kisses. The films made me curious–what elements make a coming of age story?
One of the most common elements is the discovery of sexuality, which is, most of the time, depicted from the male perspective. Oskar from Let the Right One In is in ambiguous territory with his vampire girlfriend Eli; Francis Doyle from Altar Boys fawns over Margie Flynn from on hormonal high; and Dylan in Kisses is too poor to offer anything but a smooch for his dear Kylie.
On a related note, the ways in which girls are handled in each of these films (and other coming of age films), tend to follow some worn paths. Margie Flynn does not receive great development, just like Wendy Peffercorn from The Sandlot (is it sad or funny I didn’t have to look up her name?). Both are little more than breasted idols to the males who have just discovered the opposite sex.
Let the Right One In invests more in the character of Eli, but the most impressively drawn female character is Kylie. In many ways she might be considered the main character, although she and Dylan are an inseparable duo and share equal screen time. In a way similar to Let the Right One In, Kylie and Dylan each come to the rescue of the other, highlighting each other as equals and not just objects to be saved (I’m looking at you Ms. Princess Bride Buttercup). Films like Towelhead and But I’m a Cheerleader are other notable coming age stories from the female perspective, but are still far outnumbered by male-centric tales.
For some reason sexual abuse seems to a hot topic in all of these films: Turns out Margie Flynn was raped by her brother – oh, wait, nope, she took advantage of her stoned brother and blackmailed him to keep doing it; Kylie’s uncle forced her to perform fellatio on him; and when Oskar sneaks a look at Eli as she changes clothes we’re not sure of her sex given what appears to be some genital mutilation.
Other items include the adoption of adult vices (drinking in Kisses and Altar Boys), bullies (these play a central role in Let the Right One In, and appear as more minor elements in Kisses and Altar Boys), and incompetent adults that make life hell (an occurrence in all three films, but most acutely in Kisses) and/or behave as if the children aren’t there (Let the Right One In, Altar Boys).
Finally, acoustic guitars seem to be a favorite tool to evoke sentimentality. Someone come up with another way to do this.
The romanticization of childhood is an easy trap, but those coming of age stories that remind us of our own sense of wonder and passion for life as we move past childhood–those are the good stuff. What are your favorite coming of age stories?
Update: Someone asked what of the connection to Bob Dylan and I forgot to mention he plays a strong role in Kisses