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Coming-of-age movies

Saoirse Ronan stars in Lady Bird, an uncommonly honest and well-observed coming-of-age film. Photo credit: A24

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In Three Easy Pieces, I examine a specific subgenre of pop culture from its birth, through its development, and arriving at how it looks today. This month, as we march forward into a new year, I'm looking at coming-of-age movies. Growing up is never easy, but movies sometimes have a way of making that process a little smoother.

BIRTH: Breaking Away

Honorable mention: The GraduateHarold and MaudeRebel Without a Cause

In 1967, The Graduate codified the form that modern coming-of-age movies would come to take, with a man on the cusp of adulthood being confronted with the messiness of maturation. Still, everyone knows The Graduate, so I'd like to highlight Breaking Away (1979), which still flies a bit under the radar, despite having won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The story concerns four Indiana townies (or "cutters," as the movie calls them) who find life after high school in their college town to be one filled with uncertainty and an ever-present, low-level shame at having not accomplished anything yet.

The cast's who's who of rising stars features Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley, as well as their ringleader, Dennis Christopher. While the movie is more of a series of moments, rather than a cohesive narrative, what story there is, is defined by Christopher's desire to become a world-class cyclist. Breaking Away's rousing ending plunges us into the world of inspirational sports movies, with a climactic bicycle race that trounces just about any sports movie's triumphant final game.

DEVELOPMENT: The Breakfast Club

Honorable mention: My GirlWelcome to the DollhouseRushmore

The ‘80s and ‘90s became something of a wellspring of coming-of-age movies, frequently focusing on teens in high school. Of all of these, the most iconic has to be The Breakfast Club (1985), though you could really say that about any of John Hughes' films. While most coming-of-age movies tend to take place over the course of a year or two in our protagonists' lives, The Breakfast Club focuses on one momentous day for five stereotypical high schoolers. A jock, a nerd, a ne'er-do-well, a loner, and a popular girl are forced to spend time together in Saturday detention, and they find out that they're really not so different.

Or do they? It's been pointed out many times how surface-level the emotional growth is in The Breakfast Club, so I won't harp on it too much, but I will never stop being stunned that -- after all these characters go through -- they still make the nerd write their homework for them in the end. Still, The Breakfast Club gets points for its intermittent scenes of authentic teen voices (aided in large part by Hughes letting his young cast extensively improvise), as well as its endlessly imitated aesthetic.

TODAY: Lady Bird

Honorable mention: MoonlightThe Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Spectacular Now

Many consider Lady Bird to be the best film of 2017, and it's easy to see why: while Lady Bird doesn't reinvent the wheel for coming-of-age stories, it is one of the most emotionally honest portrayals of a teenager finding herself that you're likely to see in a film. Set in 2003, Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as a senior in high school, struggling with dating woes, the pressure of trying to get accepted to a college as far away from her hometown as possible, and warring with her flinty, yet well-meaning mother.

Lady Bird's greatest power is in this mother-daughter relationship, which is much more complex than the typical portrait of an overbearing parent. As the mother, Laurie Metcalf gets the opportunity to show us one more time that she's a national treasure; it's an absolute stunner of a performance, and the Academy Awards would be foolish not to give her some attention. Known to most as Aunt Jackie from Roseanne, Metcalf takes advantage of the no-nonsense strength that's always colored her best roles. Ronan brings an endearing flightiness to her role as a young woman who hasn't figured out who she is yet. It's a supremely winning, frequently very funny film that had me crying for the entirety of its final 20 minutes.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Breaking the Fourth Wall. 

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