(by Amelia Gantt and illustrated by Vaneeza Jawad)
Coming-of-age films about under-18s are the main form of exploratory youth media today. It’s impossible not to notice how limited the selection of post-high-school coming of age films is. Being from the US, films like Lady Bird, Edge of Seventeen, and Dazed and Confused hold a lot of cultural weight. These are all films with stories that end where university begins.
In many ways, it makes sense that our high school era is used as the main mechanism for showing growth. It is the first stage of self-awareness and comprehension for which we might not have had the capacity in our elementary years. Arguably just as many emotions are felt in our 20s or at uni, but I think there are two main reasons why the general media consensus skews towards inflating the high school ‘coming-of-age’ experience.
The first reason surrounds the fact that we are oblivious to the beauty and influence of our high school years while they’re happening. This era, and everything that happened within it, was unassuming. But after some years, we increasingly gain the capacity to recognise not only the influence and pertinence of this period, but also its beauty. We seem to love consuming them because watching a picturesque film about the period allows us to evaluate it as we see it now – with an ability to reflect that necessarily only existing after the fact.
Secondly, the romanticisation of university might have already been done in our minds. Most of my thoughts in high school were consumed by the idea of how my life would be better, more exciting, later. Where we ignored the present, we were romanticising the future. And now, we would rather re-evaluate that lost time than contemplate part of what we lost that time to. The parties, the new relationships, the campus, the passive ability to have everything taught to us, don’t seem as pretty as we had imagined them prior – a natural human flaw that denies us the ability to recognise the beauty of a situation at that moment.
I am not arguing for more films simply centering the experience of being at university (although Shithouse supports my suggestion that this plot can be successful), nor do I want to imply that the formative experiences we have in high school are the same as what we feel in university, and ought to be shown the same. They are very different ‘comings-of-age’.
Films about people in their 20s – with a plot that necessarily surrounds the formative experiences that bring them into adulthood (what we can define as ‘coming-of-age’) – are rarely about being at university. Think Adventureland or Good Will Hunting. Instead, main characters are often in a limbo or contemplative crisis and by the end, after extro- and introspection, they have learned a lot about themselves and about life.
Experiencing and coming out the other side of limbo might be what we can look back on as the most formative for producing who we are today, rather than daily university life – thus what is highlighted on film as romantic. Limbo seems to be a state we will all encounter by the first quarter of life, specifically once the structure of high school no longer holds us together. It comes with the territory of realising what you thought you wanted is no longer fulfilling, or who you thought you were is no longer accurate. In the same way that we can look back upon the uncomfortable moments of high school and see how they grew us as a person, we have to recognise the beauty and importance of this time in our 20s when we don’t know what the fuck we are doing.
In five years or so, I will probably look back fondly upon the more internal development I found during my 20s, rather than that of what quintessential uni life looks like on the outside: parties, roommates, my own kitchen. We experience and change so much, but simply because evolution is constant and fierce at this age, not necessarily by virtue of being at university.
Specifically because we romanticised a future at university and did not do so for high school, in the rear-view mirror one becomes prettier than the other. It’s such a difficult thing to live in the moment and suck out all the marrow of life while also being aware in those moments that it is something to appreciate. If we only do the former, are we realising what we have? And if only the latter, how can we fully be there? It’s a talent, but a necessary skill, to be able to realise the value and beauty of a moment while in its presence.