The cheerful nihilism of coming of age films

Illustration by Jelani Ellis

Katherine Noble, Contributing Writer

High school is not an easy time. You’re supposed to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life, and you take on many of the stresses of an adult, but with almost none of the freedom.

Coming-of-age movies capture this time of tremendous transition, taking a look at the myriad of struggles teenagers face as they try to figure out exactly who they are and what they’re doing. Movies like “Ladybird” (2017), “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) and “Booksmart” (2019) portray this through their protagonists’ struggles and triumphs. 

In the opening scene of the film “Ladybird,” the titular character throws herself out of a moving car during an argument with her mother. The movie has a reckless breadth and width, and this scene captures and exaggerates that trait to an extreme. 

Ladybird is selfish, and there is no apology or explanation for it. The character expresses her yearning to go where the culture is, which in her mind is New York. 

Her path is a succinct characterization of the typical coming-of-age journey. Over the course of the film, she slowly transforms from a cocky, careless girl to a full-fledged person with direction and empathy. At prom she makes the choice to leave her boorish date and spend the night making amends with her best friend. 

In the final scene, she wakes up in New York — a meaningful victory for the girl who’s dreamt of living on the East coast since the beginning of the film. In high school, she went by Ladybird, creating a sort of persona to make herself unique. At the end of the film, she uses her legal name, Christine, symbolizing her maturity, and calls her mother to tell her she loves her. She’s not happy — but she’s working on it. 

In “The Edge of Seventeen,” the protagonist is Nadine, an outspoken girl with almost no social skills. This protagonist’s particular mess includes a dead father, an extremely fraught mother-daughter relationship and her older brother stealing her one and only friend. Nadine has always felt like her brother is the perfect child and she’s the misfit. Her best friend getting with him feels like a betrayal on the utmost level to her and leaves her lonely and floundering.

“Like the time of life they portray, coming-of-age movies can be deeply uncomfortable. At their best, that discomfort pays off with new growth in a positive direction.” — Katherine Noble

“The Edge of Seventeen” ends with our protagonists, Nadine and Erwin, getting together, but not in the typical dramatic romance fashion. Instead, our awkward teenagers share a sweet hug. Nadine doesn’t get her father back, but she does find someone she can confide in to bring her out of her bubble a bit more. She takes a chance and trusts in something other than herself.

 The premise of “Booksmart” hinges on hardworking students realizing their privileged classmates partied their way through school and still got into the exact same Ivy League colleges. This is an incredibly relevant and nuanced issue of class and privilege, and disparities in wealth and opportunity will likely negatively affect our protagonists in the future. 

In this film, however, this issue serves primarily as a vehicle for shenanigans rooted in substance abuse. The main characters discover the core principle of nihilism, the idea that life has no objective meaning or point, and it is typically thought of as a negative attitude. It can be seen as an avenue for personal growth, an antidote to the abundant self-consciousness typically possessed by teenagers. And it encourages taking chances and being bold, because there is no permanence to the choices you make.

Protagonists Amy and Molly realize they don’t need to take everything in life so seriousl, because what they do won’t affect the outcome. This revelation comes just in time for one last wild night together before they’re split across the globe, one to Yale, the other to Botswana.

“Booksmart” has a tearful goodbye, sweetened by one last pancake date. We know Amy and Molly will likely drift apart, separated by thousands of miles, but for the moment, they get to cling to the familiar friendship of their youth.

The protagonists of these three films all do stupid and brave and ridiculous things in the face of their fears. They do not have fairytale endings, but they do grow, learn and try their best in the face of often daunting struggles. Like the time of life they portray, coming-of-age movies can be deeply uncomfortable. At their best, that discomfort pays off with new growth in a positive direction.

Reminding yourself that everyone else feels empty certainly won’t change your circumstances. But a good movie focused on small triumphs, on growth in the face of hardship — well, that might just be of some service.

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