Outgrowing the teen trope

In film characterisation today, art mimicking reality is not the desired outcome. Instead, art is used as a catalyst for wider representation, to inspire us to reflect on ourselves, to be better.

“The brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal. You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.”

While hopefully none of us are like Mr Vernon from 1985 cult classic The Breakfast Club, it seems that almost every high school film we saw growing up forced us to see its characters through the eyes of its middle-aged, unfulfilled teacher – as a stereotyped set of teenagers, each falling neatly into pre-ascribed categories.

The Breakfast Club, with its host of seemingly one-dimensional characters, is anomalous in the genre of mindless and yet absurdly entertaining high school films (hint: Mean Girls).

It takes the limited cast, confined to one space for most of their screen time, to the 66th minute mark to finally open up to each other – to become multi-dimensional, in a sense.

These developments of character are only achieved after ‘blazing up’ in true 80s style with an obligatory dance break to Karla Devito’s ‘We Are Not Alone’. The lyrics foreshadow the characters’ realisations of how alike they really are when they break free from the pressures of their performative identities: “Cause when you cut down to the bone, we’re really not so different after all.”

The 80s and 90s witnessed the height of coming-of-age stories broadcast and embedded into the minds of whole generations. To name just a few: Pretty in Pink, Heathers, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, and American Pie.

Notable for its plethora of famous tropes ranging from the Saturday detentions to the highly predictable makeover (honourable mention to She’s All That), the genre is perhaps most known for its typical cast of shallow characters, like those in The Breakfast Club.

How are the characters of such films depicted these days? Are the Brian Johnsons and Andrew Clarks still occupying separate, dislocated parts of our screen? Or are the complexities of identity finally playing out from the start of films in a way as close to reality as possible?

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It seems safe to say that there has been general progress in the representation of those oh-so chaotic (yet significant) teenage years. A few notable examples include: Me, Earl and The Dying Girl, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and, most significant for me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

In these more recent films, art mimicking reality is not the desired outcome. Instead, art is used as a catalyst for wider representation, to inspire us to reflect on ourselves, to live and be better.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, written in 1999 by Stephen Chbosky, was only made into a film in 2012, after much encouragement by leading actor Emma Watson.

She is quoted saying on Anderson Cooper’s Live Show that nobody would touch the script with a “ten-foot barrage pole”, pointing to the film industry’s reluctance to produce a film engaging with the real issues of growing up – without glossing over the realities of abuse, homophobia, drugs, and suicide.

While several topics only made it into the film’s deleted scenes – importantly a discourse surrounding abortion, which played a key role in Chbosky’s novel – the film was still able to capture the dynamic authenticity of his characters, which made the book so well-loved.

Chbosky’s teenagers simultaneously enjoy the freedom of high school and work through the different problems pervading their lives. Their individual experiences are neither perfect nor terrible, they are simply relatable.

As the film’s protagonist, Charlie, so fittingly contemplates: “This is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

The pertinence of The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t just lie in whether you identify the issues explored. The story lingers in our minds because it so truthfully captures individuals on the cusp of adulthood – in the midst of their uncertain endeavour to become themselves.

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The rise of narratives realistically depicting the struggles of young people represents the film industry finally coming to terms with the fact that difficulties can arise at any age. Life does not just suddenly come raining down on you on your 18th birthday, and people want to delve into that at times unattractive reality.

As someone who still loves The Breakfast Club and will re-watch it at least once a year, its value as a feel-good classic is undeniable. It seems the film was a stepping stone, leading us to some of the more ‘real’ depictions of growing up we see today.

And The Breakfast Club characters? Well, they will live on as a cultural memory and hopefully a marker of growth and transformation on-screen. As the individual characters of coming-of-age films grow and develop, so does the genre itself, expanding to more realistic horizons. And the crowds are loving it.