Bildungsroman: a novel that focuses on a protagonist’s growth from youth to adulthood. Translated to film, the core of the bildungsroman is a coming–of–age story chronicling the life–long trials we face in identifying who we are.
The label “coming–of–age” conjures up familiar high school settings, expository narration, and the young teen who inevitably breaks out of their shell by the end of the film. Give or take certain details, this is the norm for the genre. There’s The Edge of Seventeen, the first movie to pop up from a Google search of “coming–of–age movies,” Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s recent middle school dramedy, and Lady Bird, a previous Best Picture Oscar nominee–those are just from the past few years.
There are a lot of coming–of–age movies, probably due to their assumed universal relatability, or maybe a targeted ploy to squeeze profits and high ratings out of an audience of young, impressionable teenagers. Throw together some tropes of "first times" (with drugs, alcohol, relationships), rites of passage (graduation, puberty), and a struggle with some sort of existential angst into a moderately developed screenplay and you get something that’s bound to be alright to its targeted audience, even without an ounce of originality.
Of course, there’s also the stuff at the bottom of the barrel—movies that use the easily replicable coming–of–age formula and still get it wrong—like The Kissing Booth and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. Slightly misogynistic, a little bit creepy: Whereas good enough coming–of–age is heartwarming but predictable, bad coming–of–age is unbearable to watch and almost disrespectful on principle.
But all movie genres have their own bad apples and coming–of–age is not all mediocrity and cringe. From the singular theme of “growth” that defines the genre comes original stories and struggles that push preexisting boundaries rather than settle within them. Juno: a 16–year–old girl unapologetically takes on pregnancy. Or City of God: Rocket lives amid an ongoing turf war, constantly watching and waiting for an opportunity to get out. While trope–y themes of insecurity and confusion are found in these two movies, Juno and City of God are memorable due to bold premises and strong character development: they tell stories we probably haven't experienced ourselves, but the universal themes are still there. A genuinely good coming–of–age film is more than just relatable.
I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower again for the first time since late middle school, during which I revered the movie as the peak of all entertainment. Returning seven years later, I found myself smiling at more than crying over the movie’s ups and downs. Charlie, going to a football game alone? First kisses, not knowing how to say no, and royally fucking everything around him up? Hey, me too. And the multiple cringe–worthy lines (“Welcome to the land of misfit toys.”) left me groaning. Now just a morsel of nostalgia, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is no longer the heart–wrenching teenage story I loved in middle school.
The protagonists of these stories are small and insecure, looking for some landmark to stake their identity in. We’ve all either been there, are there right now, or are getting there. Yet every individual has a set of personal experiences that shapes their viewing experience of a coming–of–age movie. I love Whisper of the Heart—is it because Shizuku shares the same haircut and career–oriented worries that I had several years ago, or because it’s an all–around well–executed movie? I’m willing to argue both, but not all movies hold up that well: The Perks of Being a Wallflower was good and is now highly mediocre.
Enjoying a regurgitated teen movie about overcoming shyness is no crime. But like every coming–of–age protagonist, we’re all growing, and many of us are still growing out of the grips of teen angst. Sure, you can return to your own favorite coming–of–age tale for a hit of nostalgia, but the genre can be even more than that. It tells stories of people who grow up in environments drastically different than your own, with movies that twist the genre into something strange and surreal (Donnie Darko), or movies that are about unassuming teenagers, but tell their stories in innovative ways (Boyhood). There’s something here for you, even if you’ve aged out of your teenage misadventures.