Not entirely unlike Inside Out a few years back, the new Pixar film Turning Red stars a character confronting her own adolescence and the physical and emotional horrors of puberty. Without going into depressing detail, it has generated controversy for a number of truly dumb reasons.
Movies have often fallen down when it comes to exploring adolescent angst — for every shmaltzy story about kids who seem to breeze through puberty without tackling sex beyond, at most, a gauzy first kiss, there is an exploitative parable meant to serve as a dire warning about the horrible dangers of the teenage years. The family-friendly Turning Red isn’t intended as either, and does an impressive job of demystifying (just a bit) a confusing time via its metaphor of a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who, thanks to a hereditary curse, turns into a giant red panda at the onset of strong emotions.
If you are looking for more films that truly get that why it often sucks to be a teenager, consider the following. They vary in tone and intended audiences, but they all treat the tumult of adolescence — and their adolescent characters — with respect.
Now and Then (1995)
A moderate success at the box office but met with shrugs from most critics, Now and Then didn’t seem to make much of an impression upon its original release — unless you were a young teenager (and especially if you were a teenage girl). In the decades since, it’s developed a larger following, and come to be lauded as a movie that takes girlhood seriously — a recognition only possible once we as a culture began to take girlhood more seriously. As the title suggests, four women (Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson, and Melanie Griffith) come together to reflect on and flash back to their fraught teenage years (when they are played by Gaby Hoffmann, Christina Ricci, Ashleigh Aston Moore, and Thora Birch). Their memories of their adventures together as girls include first encounters with puberty and sexuality, and brushes with mortality. The emphasis on the power of friendship, and female friendship in particular, set it apart at the time and still resonate now.
My Girl (1991)
Though somewhat unfairly remembered as the movie about the bees (if you know, you know), My Girl was a major hit back in 1991, and a rarity: a movie with a pre-teen girl in the lead that dealt directly with issues of puberty, particularly menstruation. Death-obsessed 11-year-old Vada (Anna Chlumsky) lives with her undertaker father in small-town Pennsylvania in the early ‘70s. Her first period, for which she is entirely unprepared, is terrifying, until she’s educated by Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis), an employee of her father’s. With that bit of support, she’s able to work through her initial fears and even experiences a very pleasant first kiss — before those dumb bees screw everything up.
Good Boys (2019)
A slightly off-balance blend of gross-out humour and genuine heart, Good Boys ultimately works because it gets that early adolescence is a kinda weird blend of lingering innocence and a growing recognition of the adult world. The three sixth-grade pals of the somewhat ironic title are dealing with divorce and a first crush, the latter of which involves awkward kissing practice, ill-advised drone reconnaissance, and a stint as drug runners. It’s a sex comedy on a pre-teen level, but also strangely sweet.
My Life in Pink (1997)
Ignore R rating, which is entirely to do with handwringing over its young transgender protagonist. It’s actually sweet, candy-coloured fantasy about a young girl (Ludo, played by Georges Du Fresne) who’s accepted her own gender identity, even as her family and the community around her struggle to do the same. There are few cinematic depictions of trans adolescence (and, in this case, pre-adolescence) that don’t tend toward tragedy, and there’s some of that here: initial rejection, an assault, cruel graffiti, etc. But there are also moments of joy, and an deftly handed message about accepting kids in those critical stages of development. Let’s have more films that deal positively with trans youth and adolescence, please.
Inside Out (2015)
Adolescence is a period of roiling, overwhelming emotions…a period that will almost certainly end at some point (I’ve been told). Set largely inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley, and populated by an all-star voice cast, Inside Out imagines the literal inner life of a kid that age as a master control room in which emotions trade off time at the controls. On the outside, Riley is dealing with an upending family move from Minnesota to San Francisco, while inside, her embodied emotions work to keep Sadness from overwhelming everything. It’s a simplified way of looking at adolescent emotional turmoil, but the metaphor works, offering entertaining context for the mysterious workings of the tween brain.
Richard Linklater’s unlikely epic follows Mason Evans Jr. from the age of six all the way through to his college years. When charting a kid’s development over time, films typically cast different actors to play the character at different ages. Boyhood’s unique approach was to film the same actor over a number of years — a technique that could certainly have been mere gimmickry if there weren’t so much talent behind and in front of the camera.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Based on the real-life experiences of late writer/director John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood follows Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II and Cuba Gooding Jr.) from the ages of 10 to 17. Following altercation at school, Tre goes from living with his mother in Inglewood to staying in Crenshaw in South Central L.A., with the hope that his father (Laurence Fishburne) will provide some needed discipline. Less about puberty than it is about coming of age in a neighbourhood where violence is a fact of life, the movie deals with both the power and importance of parental support, and its limitations when the world closes in.
Whale Rider (2002)
Pai is 12-year-old Māori girl and the direct descendant of their tribe’s traditional notable ancestor, the Whale Rider. Her twin brother died in childbirth and her father lost interest in leadership, leading Pai to believe that she’s the natural heir to the chiefs of the past…except that, traditionally, women can’t lead. If we can’t all entirely relate to the story of a girl trying to convince her family and her tribe that she’s meant to lead them, we’ve all experienced times when our own beliefs and goals have come into conflict with our parents or cultural or family traditions. Star Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for a Best Actress Oscar for her open, genuine performance.
The Fits (2016)
Almost more of a tone poem on the subject of adolescence than a film that can be interpreted literally, Anna Rose Holmer’s stylish debut feature The Fits introduces Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old athlete with a talent for boxing who finds herself beguiled by the dancers on the other side of the gym. Just a tiny bit older than her, the girls begin to experience seizures and convulsions that are entirely mysterious to Toni, who can only look with wonder and some fear about what might be coming for her when puberty kicks into overdrive.
Stand By Me (1986)
This coming-of-age classic, an improbable team-up between novelist Stephen King and director Rob Reiner, is, in one sense, very much of the ‘Boy’s Adventure’ genre, but its big heart and ambiguity lend it a broader scope. Four friends on the cusp of becoming teenagers set out to find and gawk at a dead body rumoured to be lying out in the woods. Their isolation over the course of the journey, as well as their ultimate (and perhaps premature) encounter with mortality force them to grow up faster than they might have otherwise preferred.
A window on a perilous time, director Catherine Hardwicke’s debut film carved out a unique place in the zeitgeist, and has become a bit of a cult film, even though its justified R-rating means that it’s not really geared toward the adolescents it portrays, and it’s only going to scare their parents. Co-written by Hardwicke and then-14-year-old Nikki Reed (who also plays the co-lead), there’s a believability to the story of a young teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) who falls in with a bad crowd and winds up involved with drugs, shoplifting, and risky sex. What could have been merely exploitative winds up a compelling portrait of that period in life when you haven’t really sorted out the relative value of taking risks or anticipating consequences.
At the other end of adolescence, Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a 17-year-old who is entirely comfortable with her own sexuality but knows that the same isn’t true for her family. Alike’s also never been kissed, and reaches a point at which it’s no longer possible to accommodate both her own wishes and her parents’ comfort. Though director Dee Rees’ story is grounded in the specific story of a young Black lesbian, there’s a universality to the emotional journey it depicts — almost all of us reach a moment when we have to choose between what’s right for those who raised us and what’s right for us.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)
It’s not a particularly rosy view of adolescence, nor is it meant to be. Movies so often impart a nostalgic glow to those years, but not all of us remember them as particularly happy ones. Like most of life’s greatest pains, time mercifully tends to dull the experience, but this director Todd Solondz doesn’t bother with that — which is why Heather Matarazzo’s uncomfortably realistic performance as gawky, unpopular pre-teen Dawn Wiener is so hard to watch, and so transfixing.
It’s perhaps not the most subtle metaphor for puberty, nor the most elegant, but Carrie’s famous ending, in which a girl’s moment of humiliation leads to blood-soaked revenge against her tormentors, ranks as one of the most famous depictions of adolescent emotional upheaval for a reason. An early locker-room scene portrays the moment when an unprepared Carrie has her first period, a groundbreaking moment for the movies, even if it’s tough to watch, given the cruelty with which she’s treated by her mocking peers. The various men involved in the production may or may not have fully understood what they were on about, but the later scene during which Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is publicly doused in pig’s blood speaks to the feelings of shame our culture encourages in people beginning menstruation; viewers can certainly be forgiven for finding her vengeance satisfying. Carrie’s mother does everything possible to delay the young woman’s adolescence, as if such a thing were possible, and the takeaway seems to be that the harm isn’t in growing up, but in trying to deny the inevitable.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Two teenage best friends of very different social classes (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) set out on a journey with a married older woman (Maribel Verdú) whose life has taken some dark turns, and who is tempted by the boys’ offer of a road trip as an unexpected adventure — possibly her last. The balance in Alfonso Cuarón’s film comes from its acknowledgment that teenage sexuality is complicated and fraught with consequences, but in a way that comes off as observant and reflective, rather than moralistic.