We’re in the middle of 2015 and one of the main accomplishments of Hollywood so far this year has been to give the venerable “coming of age” trope a fresh spin. Its' all the more remarkable of an accomplishment considering so much of the output from Tinsel Town this year has been uninspired remakes, reboots and rehashes. Still, five productions managed to dazzle and tell the coming-of-age story in exciting new ways.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
The most obvious of 2015’s coming-of-age stories is this indie that won both the critic’s and audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. The title of Jesse Anderson's original book and the movie both tell you exactly what it’s all about, perfectly capturing the glib approach to life by the story's narrator Greg (Thomas Mann). He doesn’t believe in much of anything, least of all himself. And he certainly doesn’t believe in joining the pity party that his mom wants him to sign up for when she orders him to go visit a classmate battling leukemia. Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is no saint herself as she is handling her illness with almost the same glumness as Greg deals with everything. But together with his too-cool-for-school friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II), these three develop a forced friendship that leads them to appreciate the little things in life. And interestingly, Greg never becomes a very likable character even with the growth he's learned by thinking outside himself. It gives the film a unique toughness helping it avoid many cliches of this type of film, most notably that which is maudlin.
LOVE & MERCY
This unique movie bio about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson illustrates how one doesn’t have to be 25 or younger to come of age. In this unflinching and intimate character study, Wilson is a man-child, a genius at music, but a mess as a responsible adult. Bad parenting will do a number on you, and boy, did Wilson have an awful dad. We see Wilson, played in his twenties by Paul Dano, struggle to nourish his art under the brutal thumb of his manager dad (Bill Camp). Wilson spins hit record after hit record, but his dysfunctional relationship with his pop spins his life out of control. By his 40’s, when the role is taken over by John Cusack, he’s a depressed, drug-addled shell of his former self. And compounding the problem is the new patriarchal figure taking over his life. Psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamati) was hired to help Wilson adjust to adulthood, and the doctor means well, but he ends up being just as much of a tyrant as Wilson's father. Thus, Wilson is kept a boy beholden to stronger men running and ruining his life. Finally, he comes to stand up for himself, with the help of a strong woman (Elizabeth Banks), and by kicking all the drugs Landy is putting in his blood. Wilson learns to assume responsibility for more than his art. He finally gets the tempo for clean living and self-sufficiency down pat. Wilson came of age late in life, but he made it nonetheless.
Yes, this film is about the five emotions in 11-year-old Riley’s brain, but nonetheless, they are all a side of this little girl who comes of age. And the most incredible thing about Disney/Pixar’s latest and greatest is not how intellectual it is, especially heady for young children, but how daring it is in clearly stating that children should not be shielded from sadness. Joy (Amy Poehler) is great, but a person needs the other end of the spectrum as well to truly grow. Even at 11. And ultimately, it's Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) that gives Riley her depth of feeling to truly understand how life works, and that children need to deal with all emotions, good and bad. In this day and age, where every kid seems to get a trophy fore merely participating in this event or that, INSIDE OUT resoundingly tells us that learning to lose is as important as basking in winning.
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT
This Netflix series about a woman rescued from a doomsday cult and given a chance to start her life over in New York City hardly seems like sitcom fodder. Still, it most resoundingly is, both hilarious and heartfelt. Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (30 ROCK), this show stars the incomparable Ellie Kemper as the naïve Kimmy. She was held in captivity in an underground prison, along with three other women, by a religious zealot for 15 years. Now, at 29, she is found, released, and told that the world didn't come to an end. The apocalypse was a lie, and now her world is truly just beginning. This is one of the most unconventional coming-of-age stories ever. All Kimmy knows of the world was what she knew at 14 and what she was told for the last generation by her captor. With such an awful set of circumstances, you'd think that the Big Apple and all the cynics inhabiting it would swallow her up whole. Instead, it's the reborn Kimmy who conquers them all and makes the big city a little more like a friendly small town. Her pluck and enthusiasm brings everyone into her orbit of positive, and they're forced to reconsider their worlds. From her struggling actor roommate (Titus Burgess) to her snooty rich employer (Jane Krakowski) to her world-weary landlord (Carol Kane), they all come of age too, proving it's never too late to change. Or grow. Or be unbroken, no matter what life throws at you.
For anyone who loathed the 2003 movie, this new reimagining of the Marvel comic should cleanse their palate. What makes this work where the film didn't? A number of things - the right casting, a deeper sense of purpose, and enough time to tell a proper story. This version is much more about character too. Most TV is, and it would behoove film to follow suit. Just look at how this one-hour drama over the course of 13 episodes expands on how blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) evolves into the do-gooder/avenger known in NYC as Daredevil. And that story is told brilliantly with numerous flashbacks showing how is childhood made him the man he is today. And what makes this show extra special is that it does the same with its antagonist as well. Wilson Fisk (AKA “Kingpin”) is played to perfection by veteran character actor Vincent D’Onofrio. He too is a man forged in childhood. And extended flashbacks of his youth show a child battling everything from obesity to a bullying stepfather. Two coming-of-age stories for the price of one is part of what makes this Netflix series so amazing. And it shows week in and week out that neither man is all good or all evil, but they have definitely been shaped by all of their past. And both leads are still discovering how much so, as they battle for control of Hell’s Kitchen. It's truly super.
Some of the other 2015 films with clear coming-of-age stories included KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE, McFARLAND USA, CINDERELLA and INSURGENT, but they tended to be traditionally told in most respects. The five listed above though truly pushed the boundaries of such tried-and-true themes found in these types of stories. And by offering up such unique perspectives, the mediums of film and television grew and matured a little more too.