The Follow-Up Movie to the Coming of Age Movie
I was an unusual child of the ’80s, enough so that Thrack at times insists I didn’t actually grow up with everyone else in my peer group, but rather in some odd time-isolation bubble of my family’s creation. I confess I have some significant gaps in knowledge and experience that continue to flabbergast or surprise others, but I sometimes feel like not having the same nostalgia for cultural elements allows me to look at them objectively and that can be fun too sometimes.
Over this weekend during my continuing skin disaster and Thrack’s badly timed respiratory infection (which I do. not. want.) we watched a couple of movies. (Yes, we’re kind of movie people, somewhere between somewhat-artsy-circuit films and people who sneer at Oscar-bait films as snooty intellectual masturbation.) For the first time in my life, I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I am aware enough this and other John Hughes films to know of them a definitive slice of film history and culture (and of greater American popular culture as well) but either because my parents weren’t of the right age/temperament to share them with me or because they perhaps knew I’d resent gender themes in say, Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink, I simply skated past them in happy ignorance. The type of coming of age film that arguably defined the generation half a step before mine was lost on me except in very fuzzy theory. I am now a little less ignorant of that whole element.
I don’t have a lot so say about the actual movie itself; it’s a film that has been parsed, analyzed and generally beloved for being a happy and life-affirming statement. It was more interesting to me as a starting discussion point about coming of age films and the perennial cultural role they play, rather than as a specific example to be dissected.
Odd as it sounds, I feel like this movie helps me understand a larger arc of film history I’ve seen play out in my lifetime. I think I’ve figured out a second set of films now, as basically a follow up to the fairly optimistic coming-0f-age lesson film that Hughes did so well. I call it the Nick-Hornby-Grow-the-Fuck-Up-and-Deal-With-Life film.
Now it doesn’t necessarily have to be based on a Nick Hornby book, but I feel like the timing his books and subsequent film adaptations (and others that have similar themes) suggest that they are in large part a reaction to what we are told by the ultimately optimistic coming of age narrative of the 80’s. It turns out that despite what you were led to believe, life after high school doesn’t just fall into place the way you think it’s supposed to and you have to come to grips with disappointed hopes, complicated (real) relationships, uniquely personal ideals of achievement, happiness and success. The Hornby-Grow-the-Fuck-Up movie came from this idea and is highly relateable because it is at its core attempting to address the idea of finding meaning and fulfillment as an adult, and how to deal with the reality shock that sets in when you figure out that daily life can be great, but it’s basically always going to be hard work to get what you really need and want.
The first film that popped into my head as the reactionary post-coming of age movie was unsurprisingly High Fidelity. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I can see where it borrows from some of the same cinematic elements that were characteristic of Hughes’ films. It casually and routinely breaks the fourth wall, uses a similar narrative tone and cadence, and contains a celebration of the arts (music rather than fine art as in Ferris Bueller) in daily life. But it differs significantly in the message. If the 1980’s coming of age film asks the question, “What do you need to learn about self-discovery for becoming an adult?” then the reactionary Hornby-Grow-the-Fuck-Up film asks “Now that you’ve figured a few things out about what makes you happy, what are you going to do about it?”
I could have probably called this category a “Clerks II-Grow-the-Fuck-Up film” and been just as accurate, as we see in Kevin Smith’s films both the dissatisfaction with allowing daily drudgery to dictate self worth and satisfaction as well as the vague anxiety of expecting that being a grownup means you finally have your shit together. And Smith’s work itself references the nostalgia of Hughes’ films, even to the point of having characters attempting a trip to the mythical Shermer, Illinois. But the fact is that while I like Kevin Smith’s films, I find Hornby’s style a bit more to my taste in humor and unapologetic openness in the thoughts and feelings of characters.
Put another way, while Dante and Rob are both flawed but basically charming and good people, I find Rob a bit more appealing and applicable. It may also be that I relate more to High Fidelity because of the way that it deals with relationships. Clerks and its subsequent sequel are as much about the importance of platonic friendship and self identity as they are about life partnerships, while High Fidelity is often (I believe unjustly) categorized simply with “romantic comedy” because it very directly deals with romantic relationships past and present and how we often fuck up good things because we expect them to fit in socially defined fantasies.
It is one of my favorite lines in High Fidelity when Rob says that there is always some new pretty girl and idealized fantasy that doesn’t play out, and ultimately can never be substantial enough to deliver what most of us really need in companionship: something comfortable. Someone who we can be at home with.
I’m tired of the fantasy, because it doesn’t really exist. And there are never really any surprises, and it never really…
Delivers. And I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of everything else for that matter. But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.
I suppose I’ve always liked movies that are romantic and realistic all at once. So much of romantic comedy trades in new relationships and what’s exciting/unattainable that it is nothing more than fairytale. I like when films really recognize what intimacy and love actually look like most of the time; High Fidelity circles around this idea as much as it does around Rob figuring out that if he’d get out of his own way, he has a path to being happy and satisfied with life achievement.
I find the follow up to the coming of age movie a more satisfying film. And I wonder if the way that new coming of age films are made now is changing precisely because so many people found the films of the 80’s a bit to rosy-glassed. When I think about a couple of newer films that have a coming of age narrative, Life as a House and The Wackness, it seems like they try to merge both these types of film and have a story that deals both with the transition out of adolescence and real world dissatisfaction and realism.