Out this weekend is another highly anticipated John Green novel adaptation, Paper Towns. However, we at Fresh from the Theatre can think of a plethora of teen films that capture teen life much more honestly, or at least, more interestingly than anything John Green has ever done. All of these films have been released within the last five years, just so show that there are some very high quality teen stories still being churned out. For some reason these films fall under the shadow of the likes of John Green, who somehow has capitalized on teen fiction more successfully than anyone else. It just so happens that majority of these titles are teen novel adaptations, too.
Films that focus on teen life are often highly stereotypical and don’t give kids the credit that they deserve. Yes, adolescence is a time of self-discovery, and a lot of kids are just trying to figure out who they are- but way too many films pigeon-hole their characters into archetypes that don’t view teenagers as real people. Here are five films that give teenagers the credit that they deserve.
5. Men, Women, and Children
Okay, this isn’t strictly a teen film as it’s an ensemble piece that yeah…discusses men, women AND children. But the teen aspect of this film is so darkly melodramatic, that it truly hits a nerve. The teenagers in this film are all going through extreme versions of what most kids experience at some point. Each story is given equal weight, and each character, despite the satirical thread running through the film, is sympathetic and fleshed out. These are stories that are relatable and relevant: the boy whose forced into football while he hates it, the girl who is monitored at a 1984 level by her mother, the girl who aspires to model and act with her mom championing her all the way through, the girl with the eating disorder who loses her virginity in the most nonchalant manner. All of these stories, through the dark lense of Chad Kultgen’s novel and Jason Reitman’s direction, are impactful and bestow some sort of warning of just how scary and important your teenage years are. It’s a time for development, and all of these kids are trying so hard to find themselves but are falling victim to a plethora of things: dreams unfulfilled, body image issues, sex, family problems, and more. It’s highly dramatic stuff but it’s a red alert of a film that is almost funny in it’s exaggeration yet still haunting.
4. Stuck in Love
Nat Wolff who is currently starring in Paper Towns gave a much better performance in a much more enjoyable film, as an aspiring novelist within a family of writers, in Josh Boone’s Stuck in Love. I’m still a little perplexed as to how first time director Josh Boone went from this great original film to adapting another John Green book, The Fault in Our Stars. Before I bash John Green anymore, I think it’s worth mentioning that his books are decent teen literature-they just don’t translate very well on film, as the dialogue is mostly cheesy and disingenuous. Stuck in Love, or as it was originally and much more appropriately titled, Writers, follows a father (Greg Kinnear) who is still in love with his estranged wife (Jennifer Connelly), but it’s the stories that lie with his children that are the more compelling insights into teen romantic life, specifically for Rusty (Nat Wolff) and Samantha (Lily Collins), who have clearly been affected by their parents’ challenging relationship.
There’s something very heartfelt about Stuck in Love which basically splits people into two categories, those who believe in love, and those who don’t. It takes this basic idea and reflects it through our two main teen characters, who are grappling with their first romantic experiences; Rusty is dealing with Kate (Liana Liberato) who has a bad history of boyfriends and substance abuse, and Samantha, who is very tortured by her mother leaving and has no belief in love, becomes romanced by a sweet boy in her class Louis (Logan Lerman) whose dealing with some family problems of his own. Stuck in Love is a highly underrated look about how our family lives shape our outlooks on romance, and is an honest portrait of the complications and struggles that first love can bring. It features a wonderful cast, will make you laugh and cry, and has some great literary references for the readers and writers in the audience.
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The Me of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the more interesting and honest protagonist’s of any teen story in a long time. Greg (Thomas Mann) is completely self-consumed and he knows it. It’s a refreshing play on perspective, focusing so strongly on the main character to emphasize how everyone else is so far removed from himself, that it’s his story and they are simply characters in it. This is something that Greg doesn’t ever really evolve from until the very end of the film, after a friendship with Rachel, who is dying of cancer, flourishes and subsequently crashes and burns. While in most cases she would be the star of this story, this film is really about Greg learning to have empathy, and to understand that there are bigger, scarier things in life than his shitty existence.
It’s a major reality check not just for Greg, but for the viewers of this film-Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a reminder that we’re all a bit too self-consumed, and that the world does not revolve around us. It’s also a truly touching insight not just into what a disease can do to a person, but how it affects those around them. How awkward and uncomfortable the experience is, when really, we can’t ever relate or begin to understand what those afflicted with illness deal with. Especially for a teenager, the concept of cancer is so grandiose, it can be so hard to empathize, and so for the most part Greg doesn’t. He avoids it, he jokes about it, he stays as far away from cancer even as it consumes his friend. It’s a coping mechanism that many of us will understand while watching the film, as the perplexing nature of illness can be too much to comprehend, leaving most of us unable to deal with this horrifying, life and death situation. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl handles this exposition rather brilliantly, and whether you like Greg or not, it’s his story, one of being uncertain and unaware of his own identity, that anchors this film-which for my money, is one of the smarter and more profound teen films in recent years.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower has forever been one of my most favourite books- and when it was originally announced that it was going to be adapted into a film, I was horrified with the possibility that this great novel would be ruined. Here is an instance where an adaptation was done so perfectly, and although it’s unreasonable to always expect this-it was definitely handled so well because the author, Stephen Chbosky, not only adapted but directed the film version. Not only that, but the casting of Logan Lerman as Charlie, Emma Watson as Sam, and Ezra Miller as Patrick was simply perfection. Following freshman student Charlie, as he adapts to high school and is whisked under the wings of seniors Sam and Patrick, The Perks of Being a Wallflower deals with many taboo topics in a very subtle and effective way.
The characters in this story are all afflicted with deep, personal issues and the way that they slowly become unveiled throughout the film, ending with Charlie’s own revelation, is handled so maturely and weighs so heavily on the viewer. The film is punctuated with so many standout moments, and it’s because of the authenticity of the filmmaking and the quality of the acting that what could have been seen as cheesy or cliche, instead works strikingly well. There’s a depth to these characters that is very melancholic and teetering on depressing, yet the film carries an air of optimism, and demonstrates how true friendship can make even the most difficult parts of life a little bit easier to get through.
1. Palo Alto
Adapted from James Franco’s book of short stories, Palo Alto weaves together troubled teenage characters into a poetic and stunning single narrative, in a brilliant first feature directed by Gia Coppola. Palo Alto, similarly to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, deals with dark subject matter, in a very tasteful and relatable way. The film has an artistic quality that could easily be deemed as pretentious, yet it balances its style with well developed characters who don’t fall into any stereotypes- each character in this film, despite their situation, feels very real. The visual style is influenced by the likes of Sofia Coppola and Harmony Korine, which make it beautiful and interesting to look at, but even with the obvious comparisons, Palo Alto manages to feel unique, and Gia Coppola has her own distinctive voice. Even the more dramatic moments of the film are directed with a subtlety that makes everything flow in a dream-like quality that doesn’t ever emphasize or judge the characters in it. For all of the mistakes that these kids make, stuff including drunk driving, substance abuse, teacher-student relationships, promiscuity, and more- the film never points blame on anyone, but depicts these kids as lost and flawed and trying to figure things out.
Featuring stand out performances from Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, and Jack Kilmer, Palo Alto for all of the things that could have made it over-the-top, is a gracious film that handles all of its subject matter with delicacy, and that views its characters not just as silly teenagers, but as flawed young adults, trying to find their identity and feel their way through the expectations of adolescence. Love him or hate him, James Franco’s writing, which was brilliantly adapted by Gia Coppola, is the source for what is probably my favourite teen film; probably because it values its characters above just being teenagers- they are viewed as fully realized people.