Last week I wrote an article discussing the portrayal of mental illness and trauma in young adult fiction. In writing that, I realized literature is not the only kind of media we should be concerned with. The coming-of-age movie is a subgenre of film that has been around for decades. A coming-of-age movie is defined by its portrayal of a person going through the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Today, let’s compare and contrast two movies that belong to the subgenre, “Pretty in Pink” and “Lady Bird,” to see how the medium has changed and evolved throughout the decades.
“Pretty in Pink” is a John Hughes film featuring the ’80s actor group, commonly known as the “Brat Pack.” It centers around Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald), a senior in her last semester of high school, who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.” She works at a local record store with her adult friend Iona (Annie Potts) and is often visited by her best friend and secret admirer Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer). The story follows Walsh as she navigates surviving her last semester at her Chicago suburb high school and faces the struggles of an acute class divide and a shaky home life.
How does this movie end? About how you would expect. She gets the rich kid of her dreams. They kiss in the rain. Everything is pure bliss. The camera zooms out. End of movie.
Before I get into my analysis, let me introduce our second element.
“Lady Bird” is a Greta Gerwig film that premiered in 2017 but is set in 2002 Sacramento, California. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior in high school who comes from her self-proclaimed version of “the wrong side of the tracks.” (The similarities just jump out, don’t they? Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!) The story follows her as she struggles with teenage love, a patchy home life and the uncertainty of her quickly approaching future. Unlike Hughes’s clear-cut high school romance story arc, “Lady Bird” possesses more of a slice-of-life structure as she goes through multiple conflicts that don’t necessarily connect in a linear fashion.
Both of these films contain many similarities: Walsh and McPherson both wear pink to prom; their families are members of the lower middle class; they’re both seniors in high school struggling with romance, and the list goes on. But, because coming of age films are made for a specific audience––high school-aged teenagers––I want to examine some specific aspects of these films to answer the question: is the coming-of-age subgenre improving?
Let me begin with the parents. Walsh lives with her father (Harry Dean Stanton), a man crippled by the recent separation from Walsh’s mother. We watch Walsh effortlessly assume a maternal position in the house as she wakes up especially early before school each day. She makes her father breakfast, wakes him up in the morning and makes sure he gets properly dressed for his upcoming job interviews. It is implied that this has become a normal routine for them. She expresses just how important it is to her that he goes to this interview. Later in the movie, we find out he never went and has been pretending to go to work each day to appease Walsh.
All of this eventually rises to a confrontation between the two of them. “Why can’t you just forget her? Why can’t you just accept it?” yells Walsh. All her father can offer her is, “Because I love her.” While her father is supportive of Walsh, she takes the role of being there for him, rather than the other way around. However, throughout Walsh’s romance plot, it becomes clear that in her personal life outside of her home, she is almost a parallel of her father: a sucker for love.
McPherson, on the other hand, takes a completely different approach to her parental struggles. Where Walsh feels as though she must take on a maternal position, McPherson is adamant about taking a totalitarian, individualistic approach. What I mean by that is she doesn’t possess the same amount of open-minded empathy that Walsh has with her father. In our society, teenagers are commonly viewed as being rebellious and angsty, making McPherson more broadly relatable. She screams at her mother multiple times throughout the film, and their relationship teeters between tolerable and unstable.
Not only that, but because of the movie’s slice-of-life style, audience members get to see into both of her parents’ lives when she isn’t around, showing us that they are just as relatable and sympathetic as our lead. We see her father (Tracy Letts) go through his struggles with depression and his difficulties getting a job after being let go. We see her mother treat mentally ill patients and use her “strong personality” for good.
Next, let’s examine the romance in these films. “Pretty in Pink” is fundamentally different from “Lady Bird” simply because so much of Walsh’s story revolves around her ability (and inability) to end up with the boy of her dreams: Blane (Andrew McCarthy), a “richie.” Gerwig’s film, on the other hand, is much more focused on McPherson as a person both inside and out of her romantic subplots. That’s exactly it, however. Romance is a subplot. In Hughes’s film, it is the plot. However, that isn’t innately a bad thing. There’s a need for rom-coms, too.
For Walsh, her best friend Duckie is completely in love with her; however, he never works up the courage to confess that love. Visually, the characters are complete parallels of one another, with their curled hair and unique fashion statements. However, as we know, Andie ends up with Blane, the masculine and dapper “richie.” Duckie is portrayed as flamboyant and feminine, entering a scene with an elaborate song and dance number where he lip syncs “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding. He is also a bit of a hopeless romantic––a trait stereotypically assigned to women. This raises the question: is this movie subconsciously saying that the effeminate, charismatic boy is lesser than the rich party boy?
As far as McPherson and her romantic endeavors go, she dates two boys throughout the course of her senior year: the theatre kid Danny (Lucas Hedges) and bad-boy type Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). She and Danny break up because she catches him in the men’s restroom making out with another boy, but they continue to be friends after the incident. McPherson helps him through accepting and dealing with his sexuality as he works to keep it a secret from his family.
A note on sexuality in this film: McPherson and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstien) discuss their experiences with masturbation multiple times throughout the film. McPherson asks her mother about sex, to which she organically tells her she thinks college is a good time to start having sex––so long as she uses protection. When she loses her virginity to Kyle in the movie’s second act, it is fast and unremarkable. “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life,” says Kyle.
As an audience, we watch McPherson explore her own sexuality and deal with the dramas of teenage relationships, but we aren’t rooting for her to get the guy. We’re just rooting for her to be happy.
Lastly, let’s look at our heroines themselves. Let me make no mistake: both of these young women are portrayed as strong, secure individuals. This is some of the best work in both films. “Pretty in Pink” opens with Walsh having a glamorous get-ready montage as we watch her suit up into her quirky and fashionable style. My favorite quote of hers is, “If somebody doesn’t believe in me, I can’t believe in them,” because it shows that she knows her worth. Even though “richies” berate her at school, and even though she wouldn’t be considered popular among her peers, she is still confident in who she is. She refuses to tone herself down for the comfort and approval of others. I adore this about her. I think that if a teenage girl were to take any lesson from this film, it should be this.
McPherson has a fanatical imagination. She knows what she wants her life to look like, and even if it might be a tad unrealistic at times, she still strives to reach her goals. McPherson is flawed and, unlike Walsh, she won’t pretend to be someone she isn’t in order to gain acceptance of, well, her school’s “richies.” McPherson is real. She is relatable because of her imperfections. Once away at school (New York University), McPherson hasn’t spoken to her mother in weeks. She calls home and leaves this voicemail: “Hey, Mom. Did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento? I did, and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life. And stores. And… The whole thing. But I wanted to tell you, I love you. Thank you.” McPherson is not perfect. But, as she gives this short monologue, we see her mom and her driving separately down the same roads. She is working hard to make things better. Because she is willing to admit she was wrong. Because she knows that love is more important to her than winning the argument.
Analyzing two movies made three decades apart from one another will not define whether or not a genre has changed. It won’t answer my title question. However, while both of these films are successful and beautiful in their own ways, it is still necessary to think critically about the media we consume. It seems, however, that more recent films of this genre don’t shy away from difficult topics––even if it still isn’t necessarily socially acceptable to discuss them. By doing this, they become more true to the real teenage experience.
For many, coming-of-age movies can define an era of adolescence for a person. So, as the medium grows and evolves, it is vital that we continue to explore the brutal honesty that comes with being a teenager. Like McPherson and Julie talking about female masturbation. Like Walsh having an honest confrontation with her father about the loss of her mother. In art, we win when we get the most honest and transparent with who we are and what the human experience is really like. Teenagers should be able to grasp onto movies that accurately portray and honestly talk about hard topics like losing your virginity or being stood up. So, artists, let’s hold onto our truth: the ugly and the gorgeous.
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