Millennial Gaze: The Importance of Coming of Age Films

coming of age films

Anyone who has lived through adolescence knows that growing up is one of the cruelest and most awkward things humans have to live through. The transition from kid to semi-adult is nothing short of confusing and painful. At this highly influential time of our lives, we are looking for things to shape and influence us, whether we know it or not. Adolescence has been a glorified topic in cinema for decades now.

The 80s brought an iconic indie wave of coming-of-age stories from director John Hughes, the directorial pop culture voice of Gen X. From Sixteen Candles to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes really knew how to capture the weight of being a teenager in our modern world. One of his most memorable pieces, The Breakfast Club, would go on to be one of the best depictions of adolescence ever made. Millennials (and now Gen Z)  have found pieces of themselves somewhere in those five strangers who ended up in detention together. Why does a simple narrative such as the one in The Breakfast Club continue to resonate so deeply with this generation of young adults?

We are drawn to things that help us process and understand what it is like to live as young people trying to find our place in the world and we often fear having no purpose.

The stories told through the eyes of Gen X directors, like John Hughes in the 80s, and now millennials in the past decade have made a significant impact on the lives of so many of us because they make us feel known and seen. Narratives from directors such as Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, are almost embarrassingly relatable.

Both are observing the weird transitional phases experienced by young girls specifically. Being a teenager is already awkward and confusing, but being a teenage girl is on a different level of terrible — trust me. We even see Bo Burnham tell one of the most honest stories of being in middle school that any of us have ever seen with his A24 film, Eighth Grade. If you have seen this movie, you know how hard it was to watch at times (mainly because we all know what Kayla was going through). Many of us want to reject the terrible feelings that come with living through the teen years.

Coming-of-age films have been a place for us to turn to when we feel misunderstood or unappreciated. Sometimes it seems that our parents have forgotten what it was like to be our age.

Unfortunately, most of us were raised by a generation that probably did not consider therapy or any kind of aid with their mental health, and we are seeing the ramifications of it now.

Being told to suck it up and move on, our developing minds may miss out on fully feeling the weight of being a teenager or a 20-something. But when we engage in movies that remind us of how we might actually feel, it can be like a breath of fresh air. Coming-of-age stories allow us to understand that we really are not alone. All people going through post-adolescent existential dread can find themselves in the characters of some young director’s mind, and that is so special.  

There is great significance in being understood by those who we do not know.It validates our own human experience in ways that sometimes our parents or other adults fail to do. Characters like Lady Bird, Nadine from The Edge of Seventeen, and Kayla from Eighth Grade are products of someone’s own personal and creative process. They were not formed out of thin air, they are reflections of what the director experienced.

In a way, these filmmakers are showing us how they coped with the painful process of growing up and experiencing everything it had to offer. Whether it was being disappointed in the outcome of their underwhelming youth, or finally realizing that what their mom said wasn’t b.s., these directors have often been honest with their work.

Our generation lacks honesty, yet we crave something real.

Through meaningful and insightful art, filmmakers give us a window into the adolescent soul. At the end of his book, Palo Alto Stories, which would later become the film Palo Alto, James Franco writes, “When you’re in high school everything can seem painful: either painfully boring or painfully disappointing. But after high school you can only look back on it and see that it was all experience, all vital to life, and it can be used to make art.” Perhaps coping with the harsh realities of becoming an adult would be easier if we could look at it from a more nuanced lens.

The media that we are spoon-fed offers an escape into another world, but it still somehow forces us to face our own problems. The age of indie coming-of-age films was pioneered by John Hughes, but was shaped and improved with the incredible minds of Millennials who get it. Knowing that someone understands our pain is sometimes all we need to feel less hopeless about the way things are now, and sets us up to look forward to the way things might be later.

There is value in the empathy presented in these films. It was not a coincidence that the voices being expressed are those of Millennials. It’s almost like they are whispering in our ears, “I promise, you are seen. I know the struggle, and you were always meant to be heard. Please take this and find yourself in it.”

While some find the voices of young people to be whiny and ungrateful, the reality is that we are not ready for the end of our adolescence once it comes. The finishing point arrives all too abruptly, and we are forced to begin our lives as young adults. Thank you, Millennial directors, for being so honest and real with your struggles. It resonates deeply in our hearts; and may we never forget the bittersweet period of being young.