Coming-of-age films launch the stars of tomorrow

The coming-of-age genre is one that I was never particularly interested in, until recently. Even the ones that I have watched and enjoyed like Big or 400 Blows have been on my list either because of their box office success or their critical acclaim, not because of the genre they belong to. I think it all changed when I watched Juno in 2007. This charming film with its quirky and endearing characters won me over instantly. It’s one of those films that I would watch a few times more if I came across it while surfing TV channels (much like Four Weddings and a Funeral or My Cousin Vinny). The star of the film of course, was Ellen Page, who had a leading role in the little seen Hard Candy in 2005 and a brief role in the widely seen X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006. But this film gave her the opportunity to showcase her acting chops and she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. She’s certainly a star of tomorrow and has already started building up a diverse body of work including Chris Nolan’s Inception, more X-Men movies and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.

Then in 2008, I came across an eerie film with a coming of age theme – Let the Right One In. This Swedish film is usually marketed as a vampire/ horror-drama, but it is essentially the story of a lonely bullied boy who finds friendship in a young girl next door who turns out to be a vampire. The two develop a strong bond and she teaches him to stand up for himself. Of course, with a vampire in the film, there’s blood and killing and thrills. But ultimately, it’s a film about the friendship between a boy and a girl, one of whom is just a little bit strange (much like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo from 2011). The final scene of the film is so very memorable – the boy is traveling on a train with a big box next to him. The box has the vampire girl inside (to protect her from the sunlight); she taps the word “kiss” in morse code to the boy and he in turn taps the word “puss” (small kiss in Swedish) back to her. I haven’t watched the highly acclaimed American remake Let Me In (2010); it features Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz who have become major young adult stars in the 4 years since then. Smit-McPhee had a memorable role as the teenage son in this summer’s sci-fi hit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Ms. Moretz has had even bigger success; she was in the violent comic book adaptation Kick-Ass and its sequel, acted in the afore-mentioned Hugo in 2011, stars opposite Denzel Washington in this fall’s The Equalizer and will play the lead in the 2016 film adaptation of the YA alien-invasion novel The Fifth Wave.

Perhaps encouraged by the box office success of these character-driven films, a number of other similarly-themed movies have achieved wider distribution in recent years. Like Juno and Let Me In, the young actors in these films all seem destined for future stardom and success.

The Kids are All Right (2010) – The 2 young actors in this drama, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, already had big screen experience by the time this critically acclaimed film was released, but both have gone on to even greater success since then. Hutcherson has hit pay-dirt with The Hunger Games movies and Wasikowska, who is widely acknowledged as one of the most talented young actresses around, has played the title role in a number of literary adaptations – Alice in Wonderland (2010), Jane Eyre (2011) and the upcoming Madame Bovary (2014).

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – This movie was produced by the same team that made Juno. It features stirring performances from the 3 young leads. I already knew Logan Lerman from the Percy Jackson film and of course Emma Watson as Hermione from the Harry Potter films. But the real eye opener for me was Ezra Miller who played Watson’s step-brother in this movie. I was surprised, but thrilled to hear a few days ago that he’s been chosen to play the title role in the Warner Bros./ DC Comics film The Flash, due out in 2018. Someone with Ezra Miller’s sensitive and rather exotic features strikes me as an unusual choice to play a typical square jawed superhero, but it certainly makes for an interesting one.

Mud (2012) – This film, set on the Arkansas river, was inspired by Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It’s one of the films that set the stage for Matthew McConnaughey’s come back which culminated in his Oscar win earlier this year. MM plays the titular ‘Mud’, a man on the run who befriends 2 boys – Ellis and ‘Neckbone’ – who are exploring the river island on which he is hiding out. While securing their help to outwit his pursuers, Mud ends up building a strong bond with Ellis, played by newcomer Tye Sheridan. I was really impressed with his heartfelt performance and I intend to watch the little seen, but well-received Joe in which he plays a similar role opposite Nicolas Cage. I will certainly be keeping an eye on his future projects.

The Spectacular Now (2013) – This film featured up-and-coming Shailene Woodley, (who played George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants) playing the nice but friendless girl-next-door, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with hard-partying Miles Teller, whose philosophy is to ‘live in the now’. As the couple navigate the final year of high school and plan their future, their conflicting approaches to life help them discover their true selves. This is one of the best of the new crop of contemporary coming-of-age films and set the stage for Woodley’s mainstream success in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, both released this summer. Having seen her break through in The Descendants, it didn’t surprise me to see her captivating performance in this film. On the other hand, I had never seen or heard of Miles Teller before, and he really stamped his presence on the screen as the outwardly confident teen, whose bluster and fast-paced lifestyle covers up his deep loneliness. Teller is back on screen with Woodley in Divergent and its upcoming sequel, but his big pay-day is already set with his lead role as Reed Richards/ Mr. Fantastic in the much-anticipated reboot of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four in 2015. He is also starring in the highly acclaimed music-themed drama Whiplash, releasing in theatres now.

The Way Way Back (2013) – Young actor Liam James has appeared in a number of child roles, including Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012 and a recurring role in TV’s The Killing, but The Way Way Back was his first ‘lead’ role, playing the kid stuck in the ‘summer vacation from hell’, as he accompanies his divorced mother and her bullying overbearing boyfriend (played brilliantly by Steve Carrell) to a beachside town. Here, he finds escape by helping out at a nearby theme park and comes under the wing of devil-may-care theme park manager Owen (another one of Sam Rockwell’s many memorable screen personas) and other equally strange and wonderful theme park employees. This is a truly likeable movie with a very satisfying ending. Liam James’ Duncan character starts off as being irritatingly slow and withdrawn, but over the course of the film, builds up self-confidence and courage. Perhaps due to his contract with The Killing, I don’t see any future movie projects listed for him.

Labor Day (2013) – I started the article talking about Jason Reitman’s Juno, so it seems appropriate to end with his latest effort Labor Day. This film was released to mixed reviews last December, although I liked it well enough. It plays out like a modern day fable, telling the story of an escaped (but innocent) convict Frank (Josh Brolin), who spends a long Labor Day weekend hiding out in the home of withdrawn single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her introverted but thoughtful son Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith). What starts out as a kidnap situation quickly changes into an improbable, but still believable dream-like love story, as Henry becomes the man of the house, chopping wood, clearing out the trash, helping mother and son bake a pie, teaching the boy to hit a baseball and of course, falling in love with Adele, all over the course of 3 days. Henry’s well-meaning but naïve actions put paid to the family’s attempts to get away to Canada for a new life, but the film still ends on a positive note. Gattlin Griffith has acted in a number of films already since 2006, but this is his most high profile role and could lead to something bigger.

So, in conclusion, there’s quite a pipeline of talent that’s come to public attention through these coming-of-age movies in the past 4-5 years. Some like Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ellen Page, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Shailene Woodley have already made the jump from indie films to blockbusters. Others like Miles Teller and Ezra Miller are seemingly on the road to stardom with their upcoming superhero roles. The younger ones like Tye Sheridan, Liam James and Gattlin Griffith have opportunities to build on their breakthrough performances. Only time will tell if they will can continue to get good roles or if they will fade away like Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel Osment.

I’m also very keen to watch Richard Linklater’s much talked-about 10 year project Boyhood, which was released to so much buzz earlier this year. Considering that I had just watched his breakout hit Dazed and Confused earlier this year (which can also be considered a coming-of-age story), Boyhood would be just the right choice to bookend the year.

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