Streamlining the coming-of-age genre

How a previously indie genre has become mainstream, filling up all the spots in the upcoming awards season

A quick look at some of the frontrunners doing the awards circuit for 2021 yields surprising results. While there is the usual mix of sombre dramas, inspirational biopics, the token historical and a couple of musicals thrown in for good measure, the lists —across categories — are dominated by one genre: coming-of-age.

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From the dazzling highs of Paul Thomas Anderson’s whimsical ode to ‘70s California and the glorious angst of teenage love in Licorice Pizza; to Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale of a young boy’s childhood during the unrest in ‘60s Northern Ireland; to the profound journey of a hearing teenage girl who is a child of deaf adults in CODA; to two captivating tales of striking uncle-nephew relationships — Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon and George Clooney’s The Tender Bar — the genre, predominantly considered an indie darling for decades, has truly, well, come of age today.

This image released by Amazon shows Ben Affleck, left, and Tye Sheridan in a scene from “The Tender Bar.” | Photo Credit: AP


Though John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) set the ball rolling in the 1980s with several classics that explored the theme, credit must predominantly go to Richard Linklater for taking it mainstream with the success and cultural resonance of Dazed and Confused (1993) and Boyhood (2014). The latter — a nine-year-long labour of love — features on several all-time best lists and was an awards favourite, even picking up the Silver Bear at Berlin for the filmmaker.

So, what constitutes a good – or great – coming-of-age drama? An accurate portrayal of the transitional period between adolescence and adulthood that can be magical, terrifying and fleeting all at once? A fond tribute to the ethos and pop-culture zeitgeist of a particular era? Or most of all, an aspirational tale of the protagonist finding his or her true calling in life, while balancing the pull of first love, lust and everything in between?

It’s tempting to say that the best in the genre have straddled all of the above remarkably in their runtime, giving audiences a nostalgic dopamine hit. After having spent most of the last two years relegated to our homes — with few interpersonal relationships outside our families — it is no surprise that we long for something relatable on-screen; a time machine of sorts to take us back to the most unique, formative phases of our lives. (Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid and Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram are two prominent Indian films in the category)

This trend isn’t a sudden emergence either. Outside Boyhood, the last decade has seen several outings capture the quintessential essence of the concept; most notably, two female filmmakers with female lead characters: Greta Gerwig with Frances Ha and Ladybird, and Olivia Wilde – in the most stunning of directorial debuts – with Booksmart.

Two other favourites include Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, starring a pristine Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as two 20-somethings who discover romance in an amusement park during the summer of 1987, and Zach Braff’s Garden State, a melancholic look at a young actor’s return to his hometown after his mother dies. Both films have terrific soundtracks to boot; Natalie Portman’s reference to a song by The Shins in Garden State propelled the underground indie outfit to overnight stardom.

Though cases of the MPDG (Manic Pixie Dream Girl) stock character syndrome still exist in many coming-of-age dramas —wherein women exist in the film just to help men change — writer-directors like Gerwig are ensuring that the trend is quickly on the downturn.

Back to 2021’s fantastic roster then, and it’s tempting to root for one of the earlier-mentioned lot over its more feted competitors like Jane Campion’s staggering western Power of the Dog, or Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune. Could it be Licorice Pizza, that emanates sheer joy in every frame, featuring astonishing performances by its two debutants, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman? Or will Joaquin Phoenix’s heart-breaking turn in C’mon C’mon as a radio journalist embarking on a cross-country trip with his nephew (child actor Woody Norman) come up trumps?

Awards or not, coming-of-age is mainstream today, but the spirit of the best of them will always remain indie and deeply personal in its consciousness.

Leave it to Hoffman, playing Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, to define it best: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

Isn’t that what coming of age is all about?

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