How it feels to be 14, 15 and 27: three recent films

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.

Frances Ha

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?

21 thoughts on “How it feels to be 14, 15 and 27: three recent films

  1. each of these sound wonderful, and i’ll make it a point to see them. when i was a teen i saw love story and romeo and juliet over and over, a hopeless romantic even then )

  2. Add film reviewer to your repertoire, Caitlin. I also was greatly impressed by Romeo and Juliet and saw lots of movies but I think current films with young people as their protagonists are portraying the trials of growing up much more than they did back in the day.

  3. I’m not sure. Most of the films I see aren’t so realistic, so they’re not likely to bring back any feelings of being young. However, I still love certain films and I enjoy seeing them over and over for a variety of reasons.

  4. I saw “blue is the warmest color”. In France, it is “la vie d’Adele” based from a comic strip. I like it, this kind of film which don’t let you indifferent. I will try to see the other ones 🙂

  5. There’s this small film, All over you (or maybe it was All over me), that approaches some of being 14 or 15 for me. I remember those years very distinctly. Fourteen was the year I thought I should really work out if this whole living business was worth doing. (It was, but the decision wasn’t easy.) My closest friend was prostituting herself for drugs and had various barely-alluded to horrors going on at home. It was all pretty horrible. Fifteen was somewhat better, but then it seemed like a good idea to start taking stands: coming out to my parents, not eating meat, not going to church. Which meant more than usual time at my grandparents’ house. (One of those visits featured one scarringly graphic conversation about sex with my grandmother in which my 80-year-old grandfather played a starring role. So that was a more productive year, but still fairly awful. By fifteen, I had worked out a lot of things in my own mind, so there was more certainty, but there was also a great deal of fall-out. And 27? I think I was mostly depressed and anxious.and mystified by the symptoms of my atrocious past. I don’t think anyone would watch a movie that reflected what those ages were like for me. I think you’d have to make it into a “dark comedy” kind of thing just to make it bearable. Although it was none of it was the slightest bit funny at the time. I am deeply grateful to be the age I am.

  6. ‘Flashback’ – starring Kiefer Sutherland, Carol Kane and Dennis Hopper I watched over and over when I was fourteen and feeling extremely torn between sticking with a world and career my parents understood that had no real prospects of long-term financial survival, and the government sanctioned careers advice I was being given at school which was telling me my personality was better suited to becoming a counsellor, landscape gardener or a fashion designer instead. I could quite see myself getting on a motorbike and riding off into the American sunset in a personal quest to find myself. Sadly, I don’t believe my teens ever quite lived up to Dennis Hopper’s prediction at the end of the film that “once we get out of the eighties, kid, the nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties”.

    I remember watching ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ a lot when I was fifteen, largely because my dad was away from home performing in a musical production of the show in Germany, and so it was a familiar and comforting form of escapism during a rather turbulent period in my adolescence. Once my sister had finally finished her daily tantrum about supper and gone to bed I would sit down quietly on my own with a glass of lemonade or a cup of tea and listen to rather than watch a movie to de-stress. Sometimes I started on my homework with the movie in the background while I waited to see how exhausted my mum would be when she got home from work around eleven thirty. The jarring isolation of Brad and Janet following their experiences at Dr Frankenfurter’s castle were a reasonable approximation of my own feelings. I felt similarly isolated from my school friends while caring for a younger sibling with an eating disorder and sometimes violent and seemingly irrational mood swings as her levels of blood sugar fluctuated during the binge-purge cycle.

    Twenty-seven, by contrast, was a pretty good year. I got to look back on my adolescence and family dysfunction through slightly kooky films like ‘Romance and Cigarettes’ and ‘I heart Huckabees’ and know I survived it.

      1. It’s always surprising how much sensory input human memory is capable of taking in when it comes to formative experiences. I could probably still recite the whole script though I don’t think I have watched the film since 2003.

  7. Pingback: Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time | Broadside

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