14 Uneasy Pieces of Teenage Life

by Adrian Martin

Drawing Attention to the Struggles of Being Young Through Film and an Alternative Angle
A classic of Latvian cinema, little-known anywhere else in the world, is a 1987 documentary whose title asks the pointed question: Is It Easy to Be Young?  We watch hundreds of youths thrashing away, heads bobbing and limbs flailing, at a punk rock concert. Here, at least, it does seem easy to be young: free of all responsibilities to family, able to channel both good vibes and bad vibes, wild desire and anti-social aggression, these kids seem in a state of natural bliss. 

But the filmmaker, Juris Podnieks, quickly begins cutting forward from the frantic concert footage to scenes filmed a year or two later, where each teenager, seen alone and sullen, is relentlessly probed with off-screen questions. Some are now in the military, others have children, some have spent time in jail, while still others are exploring underground art or political activism. Each one is full of doubts, perplexities, a sinking feeling of ‘no future.’

Almost every film about teenagers—teen movies, to use the best and most popular term—hinges on a double perspective: they inhabit the ‘eternal present’ moment of its adolescent characters—life lived in an unbroken flow of passion and rage and inquisitive searching—while also seeking to place that heady moment in the larger context of history. It is in the transition from the seemingly limitless potential of that Teen Moment to the wider flow of time, both personal and social, that the painful contradictions inherent in the teen genre make themselves most keenly felt.

Can beauty and idealism last? Is love eternal? Are we all doomed to ‘sell out’ to the demands of a wage-earning society? Must friendships and communities always end as victims of betrayal? Does growing up and gaining the wisdom of experience inevitably mean disowning the naïve dreams of youth? Are those dreams just bad, deluded fantasies? Or, on the contrary, when we lose contact with the heightened feelings of our youth, do we lose far too much?

14 films, selected from among literally thousands of teen movies made around the world since the end of World War II probe these contradictions and possibilities. Cultural commentators regularly decry the volume of films made about youth and marketed to the adolescent audience, as if ‘adult’ cinema (whatever horror that may be) is the only genuine marker of artistic quality. Filmmakers themselves, on the other hand, know better: there is a profound affinity between cinema as a medium—this form that captures the present moment in all its kinetic movement, chaotic sound and dynamic vitality—and the experiences of teenage life. The following teen movies capture such a flux well.

Summer with Monika (1953). Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman sometimes gets a bad rap these days for the glumness and heaviness of his art-house classics like The Seventh Seal (1957) and Persona (1966). The verdict is unfair: back in the days when he fell head over heels for his teen star, Harriet Andersson, he poured his heart into this bittersweet tale of the erotic paradise shared by a boy and girl on a secluded island—and the forces that conspire that bring them back to the bar of reality. A true teen movie template.

Deep End (1970). It’s strange that it took two Polish émigrés—one of them filming on a set in Germany—to give us the most indelible portraits of the mucky, grotesque underside of daily life in Britain. Where Roman Polanski went inside the mind of a deranged woman in Repulsion (1965), his film school pal Jerzy Skolimowski dispassionately studied the hopeless romantic fantasies of a 15 year-old lad (John Moulder Brown) working in a bath house in Deep End. You know from the very first image that his infatuation for dishy Jane Asher will not end well.

A Swedish Love Story (1971). Roy Andersson’s poignant film shows us perhaps the youngest, most innocent teens ever in cinema to smoke cigarettes, wear revealing clothes, and engage in swooning sex. The pattern of the movie is rigorous: against the vivacity of the lovers is contrasted, scene for scene, the disillusioned, back-biting, cynical world of their parents, as they stumble into and out of drunken parties, making sad clowns of themselves. Andersson miraculously manages to present a portrait that is both optimistic and pessimistic simultaneously.

La Luna (1979). Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, from his early Before the Revolution (1964) to his latest, Me and You (2012), has always been drawn to the lyricism of teenagers: their freedom of movement and their zany propensity to alter their innermost identities on a moment’s whim. American teen Joe (Matthew Barry), trailing through Europe with his self-absorbed opera star mother (Jill Clayburgh), enters a spiral of self-destructive behaviour from which only his super-intense Mom—and the father he has never known—can rescue him. Few movies capture so well both the heaven and the hell of family intimacy.

Christiane F. (1981). In contradistinction to the forever-young hero and heroine of A Swedish Love Story, the German eye-opener Christiane F. (based on a famous book of journalistic reportage) shows us, in no uncertain terms, that there’s nothing like hard drugs to rocket a young person straight out of their carefree youth and into the hardest, harshest realities of the adult world. Plunging rapidly from the type of spectator-ecstasy (at the feet of David Bowie, no less!) we see in Is it Easy to Be Young?, Christiane (played by Natja Brunckhorst) takes up low-life residence in and around the West Berlin train station, Bahnhof Zoo, becoming part of a street gang and a prostitution ring. In director Uli Edel’s hands, it’s a total downer, but hypnotically compelling.

À nos amours (To Our Loves, 1983). French director Maurice Pialat was a Cassavetes-like, tormented soul who especially identified with teenagers at the height of their confused emotional development. For À nos amours he discovered the actress Sandrine Bonnaire (then 16), promptly cast himself as her gruff father—and, in one indelibly improvised moment, gave her an almighty slap in the face. Families are like that in Pialat; in this one, the bond between father and daughter (it’s a companion-piece to La Luna) is a heartbreaking fusion of closeness and distance, an almost romantic longing and an equally powerful need for separation.

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985). This film—no relation to Michael Jackson’s song—is an inspiring tale of youth revolt that bases its campaign of honour on something actually quite small: the measly $608 that BJ (Helen Slater) wants from a local bully and his Dad for the wrecking of her little brother’s cherished motorcycle. But her spontaneous catchcry—“Fair is fair!”—becomes a community slogan among teens as she takes on an outlaw public image drawing in equal measure from Bonnie Parker and (in a particularly inspired touch) Joan of Arc. This is the apotheosis of the genuine girl-power teen movie.

Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the ‘60s (1994). Michèle (Circé Lethem) skips school and hangs out with a deserter from the army (Julien Rassam), not much older than herself. It’s April 1968 and (as Bob Dylan once sang) “revolution’s in the air.” But Michèle is, in truth, living out a sad, perverse, impossible love-triangle: her efforts to bring together this new guy with her best friend, Danièle (Joëlle Marlier), cover up her own secret, lesbian desire. Better than all the triumphant ‘coming out’ movies made for teenagers, this autobiographical memoir by the great Chantal Akerman is a gem.

Platform (2000). Jia Zhang-ke’s quiet, static, time-stretched tales of life in an often impoverished China may seem a world away from the affluent, upper-middle-class fun of many American teen movies, but Platform’s picture of historical change in the 1980s is a unique variation on the ‘kids putting on a show’ formula. Morphing from the propagandistic Peasant Culture Group into the All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band, this gang of youth travel about a lot with their portable platform, but perpetually dream of a better, more prosperous world they can only faintly imagine through the music they mime.

Ghost World (2001). Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are two American teens who shield themselves from the banality and mediocrity of everything around them—school, home, part-time jobs, suburban leisure activities—by feigning a cool superiority. However, neither their friendship nor their pretensions survive the bruising encounter with post-school realities and responsibilities. Adapted from Daniel Clowes’s superb graphic novel, this melancholic tale gets absolutely right (for a change) the finicky alt-culture obsessions of modern teenagers.

Bully (2001). Photographer-turned-filmmaker Larry Clark (Kids) has been long accused of churning out voyeuristic sleaze-fests—nude teens viewed and manipulated from an adult perspective, but Bully goes well beyond the surfaces of flesh to probe the most obscure recesses of adolescent resentment, resistance and desire. Based on a real-life case where a group of friends banded together to rid themselves of a vicious bully in their midst—by clumsily murdering him—this dark, soulful film is in the class of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Jean Genet.

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005). A sensitive, painfully shy South Korean girl, Son (played by cult star Bae Doo-na), finds herself lonely and out-of-place in a Japanese school. But when three classmates need a singer to enter a music competition, they choose the first person to walk past—and it’s Son. A veritable catalogue of awkward teenage pauses, fruitless conversations, and bored times, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s film saves its big moment for the end, when this band unveils its cover version of “Linda, Linda” by The Blue Hearts.

Sleeping Beauty (2011). What’s a student to do when faced with university fees, fickle housemates, insensitive family members, and the general strain of everyday life in the big city of Sydney, Australia? In the case of Lucy (Emily Browning), an odd sort of salvation comes in the form of accepting to sleep naked (for large sums of money) beside a passing parade of variously elderly, unsatisfied or kinky men. This enigmatic and disturbing film offers a non-judgmental account of the amoral but tantalising paths that contemporary youth face.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Wes Anderson’s latest piece of childlike whimsy brings together elements from almost every movie on this list: runaway youth, an idyll in nature, an insensitive adult world, obscure pop-culture obsessions, young lovers who pretend to be wise and resourceful when they are not … In Anderson’s films, teenagers—no matter how confused, immature and blundering they may be—hold up a chastising mirror to the parents and officials who have lost touch with their once-upon-a-time idealism and sense of fun: is there any better way of summing up both the drama and comedy of the teen movie genre?

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