Spoiler alert: High school isn’t an ’80s movie

Opinion by LivBirnstihl

I grew up surrounded by countless movies glamorizing the high school experience, so when a dance number didn’t await me at Marian, I was definitely shocked. It’d be bold to assume thatHigh School Musicalwas actually plausible, but why was I brought up to believe it would be? As I’ve gone through high school first hand, I’ve realized that high school films outlined the perfectly unattainable coming of age experience.

As years have passed and culture has changed, the “coming-of-age” genre has been altered and adjusted, and the 1980s are home to some of the first “realistic” high school movies. While teens back then journeyed through self discovery, too, few movies actually illustrated the true rollercoaster of getting older. 

Let’s take the 1984 film, “Sixteen Candles” (rated PG). This coming of age staple illustrates the “ups and downs” of high school, but Samantha (Molly Ringwald) hardly faces such things. The struggles of this movie are about as realistic as me getting a date with young Rob Lowe. Samantha’s most pressing issues include temporary unrequited love, and her sister stealing the spotlight when it’s literally her wedding day. Clearly, this realistic and accurate teenage girl led a challenging life, and she undoubtedly raised the expectations of her audience. Considering “Sixteen Candles” was one of the highest grossing movies of 1984, it obviously impacted its viewers then and continues to today.

Illustrations of Samantha Baker and Ladybird McPherson

“Sixteen Candles” is one of many films directed by John Hughes, who is famed for his contributions to the coming-of-age genre. Hughes is revered for his “realistic” depictions of high school, which won him international acclaim as a director. While I’m a sucker for his predictable plots and strategic casting, the flaws laced through his films are infinite. Not only do his movies lack depth and complexity, but their characters experience nothing but minor inconveniences. Hughes’ warped depiction of high school has altered the mindset of teenagers and created unattainable expectations. 

The “Pretty in Pink” I’m-in-love-with-the-popular-kid storyline is a reality check in itself. There is no question that these stereotypical movies have defined an entire generation, but Hollywood missed the mark in portraying reality to their target audience: teenagers. All these movies do is magnify insignificant problems and glorify the weaker parts of growing up. It’s no wonder younger audiences are afraid to talk about what high school is really like.

When it comes to “coming-of-age”, I think that Greta Gerwig has it down. She’s unlocked the secret to telling teenage stories the right way. Unlike Hughes, Gerwig is a woman, and has the authority to write about women.

Crazy right?!

Her 2019 film “Ladybird” (rated R for language, sexual content, and teen partying) provides comfort and security to every girl watching it. It addresses complex topics and relationship issues that previous movies never touched on; and it does it without glorifying sensitive topics. A lot of people argue that “Ladybird” is boring because the plot “doesn’t go anywhere,” but I think that’s the whole point. 

Growing up doesn’t have exposition, rising action, climax and falling action. The movie has the essential elements of its genre, but the ending is a refreshing glimpse of reality. Ladybird’s (Saoirse Ronan) love interest, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), leads her through the toxicities of heartbreak, her economic situation rifts her social status, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother drives her across the country in search of self discovery. This film was refreshing to watch not only because it was realistic, but because the person who created it was the inspiration for the storyline. 

The coming-of-age genre is one that I hold close to my heart, and is a favorite no matter the circumstances. The progress made so far in terms of the genre’s realistic nature is refreshing and comforting to audiences. Who knows, maybe one day growing up will be like “Sixteen Candles”, but for now, I’ll stick with “Ladybird.”

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