Submarine surfaces this week to remind us of the time when, supposedly, growing up is hardest to do. The hornymoans, the prison of home-life, the girls who like boys/girls and boys who like girls/boys, the prison of classroom-life, the puberty mood swings … But some of the best teenager films in recent years have, beneath their raging angst, sarcastic quips and boiling frustrations, shown how adolescence isn’t an isolated coming-of-age but an early, painful, and often more honest grappling with the same issues that haunt us as adults.
Adolescence popped up in Hollywood as nostalgia in the ’70s with American Graffiti and Grease. Under the California sun, leather jackets and sweater tops kissed each other in the backs of Impalas and Thunderbirds before greasers broke into song. Thirty years before high school became a Disneyfied musical-fantasy to pitch to tweens still in middle school, teenagehood was instead something for baby boomers (then in their 20s or 30s) to look back on fondly, an imagined time of small-town, white American values.
The ’80s became the decade of the teen on screen. 17-year-old Marty McFly travelled back to the ’50s in a DeLorean (crash-reversing the Oedipal complex when his mom falls in love with him) and time-jumped through two sequels. Seventeen-year-old Scott Howard (Michael J Fox again) turned werewolf. Seventeen-year-old Ferris Bueller skipped school with his friends, joyriding around Chicago in a ’61 Ferrari. Two high school nerds dabbled in Weird Science to create their ideal woman. The Jock, Smart Kid, Delinquent, Princess, and Basketcase all found themselves in Saturday morning detention together—The Breakfast Club. (Those last three were written and directed by John Hughes, who wrote and/or directed six high-school films in the ’80s, often starring the “Brat Pack”).
In these ’80s flicks, teens suddenly had all the power. Bueller plays the merry truant as the principal looks like a tinpot-idiot of a petty dictator. The five students break free of the low-grade expectations and stereotypes that the vice-principal confined them to, they tell him in a letter at the end of detention: “You see us as you want to see us … In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.” There was no serious school authority to oppose—teens were rebels without a cause. What to be teenangsty about?
In the late ’90s, though, writer-director Lukas Moodysson’s first film, Show Me Love (Fucking Åmal), slyly reworked the genre. The formula’s elements were there—parties, teasing, peer pressure, frustrated young love, parents who don’t understand—but the dilemma was a little different: small-town bookish girl (Agnes) falling in love with the girl (Elin) who thinks she’s hetero but isn’t really. Gender and sexuality are the social authorities to break down (the sense of barriers is nicely suggested by a nod to those olde kept-apart lovers, Romeo and Juliet, in a riff on that play’s balcony scene).
The teens aren’t always likable, either. Agnes is mean to a wheelchair-bound classmate. Some of her classmates offer up ignorance, more than outright homophobia, about lesbianism. And Agnes’ parents are well-intentioned but too protective at times, while Moodysson shows how the piercing “woe is me” sense of an adolescent means that there’s a gulf between them and their parents that can never be bridged. (Agnes’ father telling her about 25 years from now doesn’t help because teens, Moodysson suggests, are so caught up in the present.)
Agnes and Elin grapple with personal questions that grip many of us long into adulthood and still plague our supposedly mature societies: opposing the macho-conformity of masculinity, the pressure to be straight and talk straight, conformity to social norms, feeling “weird,” and the general meaning of it all: “It’s all so fucking meaningless.” Teens feel more deeply torn between meaning and meaninglessness, Moodysson suggests, desperately needing to escape and to feel as they recognize a future of adult conformity bearing down on them. In a time of faltering confidence, when peers pressure and parents can’t seem to understand and a dull post-teen world looms, where to go and what to do? Love seems the only way out—a connection between two teens who feel the same. The struggle to get there, though, is what makes the literal coming-out (of a Water Closet) and the film’s closing scene—of the kind of wonderfully mundane moments together that a relationship’s based on—so touching.
Love is the only answer, too, in Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel. Through the metaphor of vampirism, Alfredson heightens the sense of the physical lust and thirsty need for friendship that comes over us in our teenangster years. 12-year-old Oskar even cuts his hand to mark a blood-bond with his beloved (of unclear gender), Eli. In this post-Columbine film, bullies—bloodily sadistic without real need to be, unlike vampires—are the enemies, and they get their fatal comeuppance in a pool when Eli massacres them. The sense of loneliness, a need for companionship, and the isolation of adolescence are all keenly accentuated by Eli’s solitariness, desperate bloodletting, and even her confinement in a box in the final, eerily sweet scene as the pair escape their restrictive Swedish small town together.
Submarine is floating in a slightly different tradition, submerged as it is in the kind of wry British humour of many UK films and books (such as Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾). Now, the teen is even more all-knowing than he was before (especially about sex), though s/he’s still not as all-knowing as they sometimes like to think or pretend. Director Richard Ayaode refers to the French New Wave (with its own teen protagonists, as in Godard’s Breathless) and uses other dynamic shots to suggest the wild pretensions and hormonal energy of the outwardly dull Oliver Tate, 15. His Welshness—explained in a delightfully wry note to the viewer at the start—only makes him more marginal and he’s not always likable either (in the novel, he poisons Jordana’s dog to bring her closer to him in her grief; the film shrewdly sidesteps this plot point).
The usual talk with the parents is reversed—it’s Oliver who’s worried about his parents’ marriage and tries to keep them together, even charting their lovemaking. The teen’s sense of individual special-ness is even more pronounced here … so much so that he wishes he were followed by a film crew, thinks he can single-handedly save his parents’ marriage, and even rather wonderfully goes out to look out at the horizon over the ocean and “wait till the sky catches up to my mood.” But self-involvement can also lead, though haltingly, to self-reflection and maturity. Meanwhile, Oliver’s parents are cringingly well-intentioned, with the father even offering a tape of mood-music that can take Oliver through the various stages of his relationship with Jordana.
Submarine plunges us into the intense feeling and expectations of the teen years—fearing the adult future that’s coming. That future becomes a present that we adults can’t always figure out, either—the bouts of blue-ness that come over many a teen don’t hit Oliver but his father. Still, desperation and anxiety flow through Oliver. Submarine suggests that adolescence may be the time when those feelings are most concentrated, but adulthood is only a diluted, drawn-out version of the same. And if we can deal with our constant life growing pains when we’re in our most teenangsty years, maybe we’ll have a better chance when we get let out of hormone-detention and have to survive the grind of the “real world.” V