By Caitlin Kelly
Do you remember how it felt?
These three recent films, all of which I enjoyed, powerfully explore what it really feels like to be young, confused and figuring stuff out…
The Way Way Back
If your parents divorced when you were young, (as mine did), you may have spent your childhood and teens being subjected to a series of boyfriends or girlfriends of a sketchy, dubious or downright nasty sort. This film stars Steve Carrell, (of TV’s The Office), as Trent, a bully who’s dating 14-year-old Duncan’s mother, a weak-willed mess, (Toni Collette). Off they all go to his summer house in Massachusetts. There, they meet his wildly drunken neighbor and her teen daughter and a flirtatious wife married to another of his pals. For Duncan, it looks like it’s going to be a really long summer.
But he finds a new family when he wanders into Water Wizz, a local water park, and starts to see how funny and lovable he really is. He’s befriended there by its manager, Owen, who looks like a deadbeat goofball, but proves to be just what Duncan most needs — someone who can gently tease him into becoming his best self. Honest, smart and poignant, this film reminded me how it felt to be marginalized by your family, who really have no idea who you are underneath that teen prickliness, while a bunch of erstwhile strangers bring out the best in you.
Blue is the Warmest Color
If you’re not ready for its famous seven-minute sex scene between two young lesbians, maybe this isn’t your movie.
But the rest of the film — which won three awards at Cannes, shared between the two leads and the director, a first — is well worth the three hours (!) it devotes to this coming-out story of young Adele, who falls for sly, knowing, upper-class Emma after spotting one another crossing a street in Lille.
Adele is completely 15 — starved for life, affection, attention. She eats spaghetti off her knife while her parents watch TV at the dinner table. Emma, with her blue-dyed hair, is five years her senior, a university art student already confident in her powers, artistic and sexual.
Who hasn’t fallen for the knowing, powerful, self-assured version of who we think we’d like to be? Does it ever work out? Adele is obsessed. But Emma moves further and further our of her orbit, strategically mapping her way into the byzantine world of artistic success — thrilled when she introduces her young lover to a potential gallery owner, leaving a good impression.
Emma pulls away, breaking Adele’s heart. She cries easily and copiously — I kept wanting to hand her a Kleenex as globs of mucus run down her face. But that’s young love.
I liked this movie a lot, and the graphic sex scenes felt almost irrelevant after a while because this is really a film about what it feels like to grow into yourself, and the inevitable losses that come with it.
The truly taboo word here? Class. Adele is working-class and proudly and happily becomes a kindergarten teacher, a profession in which she blooms, to the dismay of Emma’s wealthy, languid posse. Emma’s world is elegant, littered with arty pretensions — her friends argue Klimt versus Schiele at a dinner party. Eager to please, Adele not only does all the cooking for them, but the cleaning up. That power imbalance is something every younger lover knows all too well.
My favorite image of this film — which is shot in black and white — is the final one, a surprise you’ll need to wait for.
This story, of Frances Halladay, a 27-year-old modern dancer living in New York, limns the challenges of making money doing what you love, of friendship strained by your BFFs new love, the ever-shifting sands of self-confidence. It, too, is full of youthful yearning — for artistic success, for the safe solidity of the friend who never leaves, for financial security, for love, for an apartment all your own you can finally afford.
For many of us, the 20s are a time of self-discovery and self-invention. Who are we? Will anyone ever love us? What happens when our best friend marries — and it’s someone we don’t even like? Can we make a living doing what we most enjoy? If not, then what happens? What happens after that?
Much as Frances is a little irritating in her relentless naivete, her goofy sweetness and optimism are also charming. I ached every time her heartless little shit of a room-mate Benji calls her “undateable” and she too-quickly agrees. Few films have reminded me so effectively of the clash of hope and fear that our 20s can offer.
Which films bring back your most powerful feeling of being a teen or young adult?