I was a teenager during the '90s, and films like Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, and She's All That were the backbone of my teenage education. But while I always related to Cher, Bianca, and Laney on a character level, those films only offered a dramatically heightened version of the teenage experience — a version filled with electronic closets, synchronized dances, and curly-haired Australian boys who might serenade you in a stadium.
The coming-of-age genre isn't always taken seriously. In cinema, it's often written off precisely because of its heightened reality, and its focus on young people who don't know what they want. The worst iterations of the genre are corny and trite: The nerdy girl who is both misunderstood and scorching hot under her spectacles, the jock sensibro, or the rebel with a heart of gold. And the flaws don't stop there; these movies can also be blindingly white, misogynistic, and completely ignorant of anything that isn't middle class.
But when coming-of-age film are good — and sometimes even if they aren't — they can also speak core truths about our teen experiences: The obsessive longing over crushes and the future, the unbearable angst over a 10 o'clock curfew, and the beginning of the lifelong process of evolving into yourself.
In recent years, the genre has offered mostly forgettable fare (with the exception of 2010's Emma Stone-starring Easy A). But this summer has seen the quiet release of a trio of new teen films that feel as if they are revitalizing the genre: The To Do List, G.B.F., and The Spectacular Now.
On the surface, each film sounds familiar: The teen sex comedy, the friendship that could be more, and the first love story are all well-trod ground. But taken together, all three films mark a new wave in the genre by telling grounded stories without the disconnect from reality that keeps most coming-of-age films from capturing what it's like to be a teeanger.
The To Do List
Maggie Carey's The To Do List, which hit theaters last month, is an unprecedented chronicle of female sexuality in all its awkward, pillow-humping glory. The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, a type-A, straight-A student who realizes that she'd flunk a test of sexual aptitude. Brandy begins her sexual education after a chance encounter with the super-hot Rusty Waters (Scott Porter) at a kegger, and creates a color-coded "to do list" of sexual acts she wants to try — with the end goal of losing her virginity to Rusty.
Brandy is bespectacled, smart, stubborn, and bossy, which are normally traits that pigeonhole a lady as a sidekick to a hotter friend. In other teen films, Brandy would need to change her personality or dramatically reveal the hotness under her glasses — but she has to do neither to get the attention of the guys she fools around with in The To Do List.
It's a refreshing change of pace. In male focused teen sex comedies — a.k.a. pretty much every sex comedy besides The To Do List — the action is fueled by the lust of dudes who really want to get laid, but accidentally learn a lesson about love by the end of the film. What's revolutionary about The To Do List is that while Brandy does have an epiphany when it comes to the complicated feelings sex can evoke, she doesn't regret what she's done or who she's done it with, and she doesn't fall in love. Brandy cements this by saying, "He's hot! It's going to be a great story to tell my friends." Women everywhere agree.
Sexuality is also the subject of Darren Stein's G.B.F., which centers on best friends Tanner (Michael J. Willet) and Brent (Paul Iacono). Both teens are gay, but they're not out to their parents or their school — only to each other. When an article is published in the hottest teen magazine about how the Gay Best Friend is the hottest new teen girl accessory, the three most popular girls in school try to find a G.B.F. of their very own. Brent wants the attention, and Tanner doesn't — but thanks to a Grindr-like app, Tanner is accidentally outed to the whole school.
In mainstream teen films like Clueless and Drive Me Crazy, gay and lesbian characters either didn't exist or were relegated to stereotypes — and even when more positive depictions exist, the character is still sidelined as a sidekick. G.B.F. explores those stereotypes directly by creating well-realized and realistic gay characters in Tanner and Brent.
Tanner can't be pigeonholed to a single stereotype: He doesn't like dance-y pop music, loves comic books, and doesn't really care about how he dresses. ("He doesn't sound like the ones on Bravo," says one girl, tellingly.) Tanner occupies the middle ground between the more flamboyant Brent and one girl's closeted but bi-curious Mormon boyfriend. Tanner's relationship with Brent is equally complicated, as Brent begins to resent Tanner's newfound popularity. For one of the first times in a coming-of-age comedy, the gay characters aren't just advice-giving paragons about fashion or love; instead, they're finally the three-dimensional center of their own narrative.
The Spectacular Now
Of the three films, James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now has the most tried and true teen formula. A popular boy and a less-than-popular girl meet cute, and he ends up falling for her. But The Spectacular Now bucks convention by giving us one of the most fully realized male characters ever seen in a teen film: Miles Teller's Sutter Keeley. Sutter is a funny, popular guy who loves to party, has a gorgeous, fun girlfriend, and is completely content with the trajectory of his life. When Cassidy breaks up with him, Sutter goes on a bender that inadvertently throws him into the arms of Shailene Woodley's Aimee, a girl who is neither here nor there in their high school ecosystem.
As the pair's friendship blooms into a romance, it never feels contrived, despite their seemingly typical roles. Sutter, constantly buzzed, is a complex portrait of masculinity. He's smart and charming, if not a little crude, but he's hiding a huge amount of compassion and thoughtfulness under his booze-soaked party persona. Sutter constantly mentions his absent father, a hero in his eyes, and blames his mother for that absence. Later, with Aimee along for the ride, when Sutter finally meets his mythical father, he gets a heartbreaking taste of what kind of toxic masculinity he's in for if he doesn't allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable.
Like Sutter, Aimee first seems to fit into a one-note stereotype: A nice, meek girl. But she has also unapologetically cultivated her own interests in manga and science fiction. She's also hopeful and idealistic and committed to it. While at a dinner party, Aimee describes her dream life of working for NASA with a husband who doesn't work in the field, so they can balance each other out and they'll be happy together. The condescending adults at the table give her pitying looks but she stands her ground saying, "I think it's good to have dreams, don't you?" effectively silencing the table.
The complexity of Sutter and Aimee is precisely what makes the evolution of their relationship work so well. It's apparent, while Sutter tries to keep Aimee at arm's length at first, that he needs her complete and utter fascination and belief in him. Without it, Sutter would destroy himself. And Aimee needs Sutter's fearless confidence to stand up to her parents and to go to college in the fall. It's not a conventional teen movie narrative, where one partner or the other appears to be a crutch for the other — instead, they both naturally grow and become more whole versions of themselves because of it.
While The To Do List and G.B.F. sometimes veer into a sense of heightened reality — and mostly for comedy purposes — all three films stay deeply grounded in the real experiences of teenagers. At times it's deeply uncomfortable to watch. But it can also be supremely moving. Most importantly, the films are based in the real and underrepresented experiences of teens: Coming out with potentially dangerous repercussions, safely undergoing a sexual awakening, and falling in love while aware that heartbreak lurks over your shoulder. By featuring characters that actually feel like real teens the audiences can relate to, we can hope that The To Do List, G.B.F., and The Spectacular Now will pave the way for the next great wave of teen films: The ones that continue to come from an honest place.