In the language of the Aymara, an indigenous South American nation, it is the future and not the past that lies behind you. The logic behind this idea is immaculate. What has been done and seen and experienced will be laid out in front of you, visible at all times. Turning the other way is futile; there is nothing to see.
It is something of a shame, then, that the tyranny of looking forward has settled on the rest of us. It has become a symbol of stoicism and progressiveness. Memory is now a dehumidified place, a container for postcard anecdotes that can be safely retrieved, shared, and put away again. Anything else – anything more – would be wallowing.
But there is something deeply atavistic about people’s needto take stock, and the pressure to avoid doing so has sprung a market for spaces where quick and unceremonious attempts can be made. A lot of these offerings go for cheap sentimentality, proving that the past is only palatable when kitsch. Admit it, everyone who has ever been to a noughties club night went with the small hope of recapturing something oftheir childhood, and no one has ever emerged from one convinced that Flo Rida helped them do it.
The coming-of-age genre is no exception, and many of its products have their faults forgiven by a culminating wide-angle of the protagonist pulling out of the driveway and heading to college (hey, remember when you left for uni? Great! Now cry, you anxious, regret-fuelled adult-thing, and don’t pay ten quid for a cinema ticket if you’re going to track your imposter syndrome onto the carpet). There are exceptions, though, and the past twenty years have seen some of the most subtle and sublime films of this kind ever made. They are less about becoming someone else – older, better – than they are about having that often-discouraged dialogue with who we once were. As Joan Didion put it, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
Freshers’ week is a time when the cultural expectation to never look back is at its strongest, and when who you used to be seems most unattractive. The curtain is pulled back on your new life, you’re shown around and reassured about its superiority, and without warning comes the plunge into its demands and rhythms. Besides, you can’t toss in bed thinking about the past when you’re at a different club everynight (which you definitely will be because no one in the history of this university has ever chosen to admit their social inferiority by skipping out on going to Fever, ever). If, however, you happen to find the time or the willingness, now or at any point in the next few years, here are a few films that demonstrate how looking back can be done with dignity and style.
1. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Greta Gerwig restages her adolescence against buttery Californian sunlight. Not quite autobiographical but, if you’re a daughter who has a certain kind of mother, it may at times feel autobiographical to you. The film follows Christine McPherson – or “Lady Bird”, as she has styled herself (quotation marks included) – in her last months of high school. At its centre is her relationship with her mother, and equally, her mother’s relationship with her. Both are stubborn and angry in their own way, loving and empathetic in quite a similar way, and Lady Bird is as much about dealing with someone growing up as it is about growing up yourself.
2. The History Boys (dir. Nicholas Hynter, 2006)
Yes, it is about a group of sixth- formers being trained for their Oxbridge exams and interviews to study History, and for that reason alone many of us are guaranteed to sense the past raise its head while watching it. But both the play and the film also encapsulate a common frustration that quietly plagues seventeen-year-olds: the suspicion that you might be a bit clever and the desperate need to be seen as such. They also nod at something many of us realise years later, that teachers are people too, and sometimes the ones who are too eager to make us feel clever aren’t necessarily the best for us.
3. Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burn- ham, 2018)
A coming-of-age film that throws out every trope John Hughes ever started. Swollen soundtracks and prom night are eschewed for the blue light of a phone screen under the covers after bedtime and the clumsy, undersubscribed YouTube channels that form one’s early online footprint. Also, if you were fortunate enough to have experienced middle school as it is constructed in the American and international systems – those three self-contained years that replace childhood optimism with a generous selection of complexes and insecurities – please watch,and squirm, and redeem your thirteen-year-old selves. We may have been embarrassing, but we often still are, and bless us, we never stopped trying our best.