On this week’s post, I wanted to dig into some coming of age stories. I’ve covered films with coming of age elements before, but I’ve never focused on it as a specific type of genre. The essential coming of age story is about growing up. It’s also very related to the Hero’s Journey which we’ve talked about a little bit before. It’s about a character going off to have an adventure and returning, changed. The Hero’s Journey is usually associated with swords and sorcery type stories, but it’s a really flexible story format that can apply to almost any kind of story.
Today I went with two directors who’ve produced several coming of age stories each. Today’s films are:
Richard Linklater – Dazed and Confused (1993)
Cameron Crowe – Almost Famous (2000)
Both films are essential coming of age stories, and both directors have visited the genre several times. Linklater produced one of the most amazing coming of age stories in Boyhood, where he actually films a young man growing up over the course of a decade. He also produced a sequel to Dazed and Confused called Everybody Wants Some which I haven’t had a chance to see yet.
Crowe almost always seems to have a coming of age element in his films. Almost Famous is his most obvious film about growing up, but he also made Say Anything… and wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even Jerry Maguire could be read as a coming of age story.
But we’re not talking about that one today. Let’s get into it.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Dazed and Confused is the story of the last day of school at a Texas High School in 1976 and how the students deal with their transition to the next step of their lives. Juniors looking forward to being seniors, and Jr High students looking forward to being Freshmen.
The film doesn’t play as a straight A to B storyline. It’s more a series of scenes exploring a day in the life of these students. As it continues, different stories develop, pay off, and blend into other stories, making new stories. It’s not a series of vignettes, the film has a throughline, but it’s not totally obvious until the stories begin to develop. Linklater is really great at this kind of storytelling, where we feel like we’re watching a series of conversations, but suddenly get involved in a story.
The film puts characters into different groups, giving us a way to identify them more easily by who they are with. The film is an ensemble cast, but if there’s someone we could call a main character, it’s Randy ‘Pink’ Floyd, played by Jason London. His character is able to connect with essentially any of the various social groups, and thus connects all of the storylines together. He also has his own main storyline, focused on a pledge his football coach wants him to sign promising that he will not drink alcohol or use any drugs during the season. His teammates sign it just to placate the coach, intending to ignore it. But he’s hesitant, because he feels uncomfortable with the idea of being forced to sign such a document. The film keeps coming back to this, as he continually gets pressured throughout the film. By his coach, by his teammates, and even by townspeople he encounters, who remind him how important the football team is to them.
The other main plot line involves the hazing rituals that the new seniors put the incoming freshman through the summer before they are thrown together in the same school. It’s a little bizarre watching the way this happens from a modern perspective. Hazing is pretty heavily discouraged and even policed in this era, but in the film, it’s portrayed as an open ritual. The boys build wooden paddles they use to spank the new freshmen whenever they can catch them over the summer, starting with the last day of school. The girls go a bit easier, having a single event on the last day of school where they publicly humiliate the Jr High girls, berating them, pouring sticky food and condiments on them, and forcing them to wear pacifiers and propose to nearby upperclassmen.
It comes across as pretty brutal, but Linklater is able to somehow show us the positive side of hazing. After the ritual, the upperclassmen take the opportunity to bond with, support and mentor the newly initiated. We focus on a couple of characters here, Sabrina, a Freshman girl who connects with some of the seniors, and Mitch, who becomes the main character of the second story, and the character who most easily fits into the coming of age story.
Mitch, unfortunately has a tougher time than Sabrina. Mitch’s older sister asks the senior boys to take it easy on him, which anyone can see will lead to the exact opposite reaction. The senior boys include O’Bannion, played by a young Ben Affleck, a senior who had to repeat a grade, making this his second year with the paddle, which he delights in sadistically. He almost catches Mitch and his friend, but his friend’s mother comes out with a shotgun, which I find to be a pretty reasonable response when someone is chasing your child with a wooden paddle. But it infuriates O’Bannion, who now makes it his mission to catch Mitch.
The seniors finally do catch him after his baseball game. Mitch valiantly walks out a different exit so the seniors catch him, but not his friends. O’Bannion makes good on his word, and paddles Mitch mercilessly, along with a couple of other seniors. At the end of this, Pink arrives and asks Mitch if he needs a ride home, revealing the positive side of things. Mitch agrees, and Pink takes him under his wing, suggesting he come out with him that night, pointing out that it would make him look cool to show up and make it clear it doesn’t bother him.
Now to be clear, I don’t think hazing is a good thing, and I imagine that Richard Linklater doesn’t think it’s good either(I have no evidence either way, it’s possible Richard Linklater rolls around Texas on the weekends with a paddle looking for high school students to abuse, but I doubt it). But I think it’s here not to glorify the behavior, but to be truthful about the era, and explore how teenagers in this era became accepted among their peers. How would a character in this environment react when this kind of hazing is just a normal part of life? I think they’d react like Mitch and Pink. Try to find whatever positive aspects they can find. Pink knows how Mitch feels because he went through it himself. We can almost see an underlying story here where if we could rewind a few years, we’d see Pink receiving his rite of passage, and then connecting with a senior who took them under their wing. He can’t stop the negative tradition of padding, but he can continue the tradition of taking care of the freshman that get the worst of it.
I’m sure a sociologist or anthropologist could expound upon the initiation rituals of various cultures, and how this compares, but suffice it to say, the hazing is just as much an initiation as it is punishment. Once the freshman experience it, they are part of the club, and are accepted.
Mitch’s story is very Hero’s journey. We get the call to adventure, with the seniors offering them a chance to participate in the initiation ritual, literally in this case, when the seniors sit outside the school and offer to take it easy on any freshman who come willingly. We have the refusal of the call, when Mitch and his friends avoid the hazing as long as possible. Mitch then must cross the threshold by accepting his fate and going willingly to be paddled. He then meets his mentor Pink. He is tested when he goes to the local hangout with Pink and must show that he isn’t bothered by being hazed, and must try to gain acceptance.
The rest of the steps aren’t as clearly laid out, but Mitch continues to slowly work his way into the world, even getting back at O’Bannion with a prank, and catching the eye of a sophomore girl. After getting constant advice from the older men about how to keep her interested, he ends up watching the sunrise with her, making out on a blanket. When he arrives home, he is given a short lecture by his mother, who warns him he won’t be able to do this every weekend, and then he goes to his room and puts on his headphones totally relaxed. He’s finished his journey.
The cast in this film is exceptional, with a lot of young actors who would find a lot of success later in their careers. Jason London, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Rory Cochrane, Cole Hauser, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Ben Affleck all play key roles in the film.
But of course, if there’s one character and actor that this film is famous for, it’s Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson. Looking back, it’s sometimes hard to separate his public persona with the character of Wooderson. He’s the ultimate in cool. He’s totally comfortable with himself and his life, and while he doesn’t care what other people think, he cares for the people around him. From the moment he appears, it’s apparent that he’s a character that everyone else looks up to.
As a character, Wooderson is someone who graduated an unspecified number of years before, but decided to keep his life as intact as possible, getting a job that’s enough to sustain him, and continuing to hang out at his old spots, now surrounded by high school students. A lot of films would portray someone in this position as pathetic, or strange, but Linklater makes Wooderson so lovable, kind and empathetic, it’s impossible to not see him as a valuable part of this world for all the other characters. Wooderson is accepted by this world, and we can see Pink treating him like his own mentor, even as he mentors Mitch. We might even speculate that Wooderson was a person that Pink turned to when he was a freshman himself.
There’s a few other subplots here, including a group of more intellectual students who want to be more involved in the activities that their peers are involved in. They’re interesting because while we see so many characters trying to grow up, we see them attempt to regress to a more immature world. They’ve always created their own social connections among themselves, playing poker (sometimes with Pink, which connects them back into the main film), but they’re trying to expand. Their story collides with Sabrina’s story as she and Tony begin a romance. Sabrina’s coming of age story isn’t as well-explored as Mitch’s, but she gets a couple of moments, including an encounter with Parker Posey’s character, where she has some growth. She ends the night by kissing Tony, finishing her own miniature Hero’s Journey.
After a big party that was planned is ruined by the host’s parents figuring it out and staying home for the weekend, Wooderson plans another party out in the wilderness where everyone can get together. All the stories collide here, and we begin to see some payoff and resolution.
Pink’s story resolves after a speech from Wooderson explaining that every rule he follows will be followed by another rule he has to follow, and he has to decide where to draw the line. He decides not to sign the pledge, even though he might play football. After confronting his coach, he drives off with Wooderson to get Aerosmith tickets.
This is a film that’s remembered for being funny and showcasing some wild behavior and characters. But it’s also a really sweet and kind film about finding mentors and trying to make the transition into a new and strange world, and how powerful you feel when succeeding. As we watch Mitch go through his challenges, we can all think back to moments in our own lives when we were unsure of ourselves, but then found our way.
This is also why the Hero’s Journey story format is so relateable. The Hero might be fighting a dragon, but the metaphor of what he’s fighting is something we can all relate to.
A coming of age story just makes this more explicit. Rather than seeing a metaphor for something else, we are seeing the characters go through the same things we’ve all gone through.
The film holds up really well, and is well worth checking out.
Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous is the story of William, a gifted teenager with dreams of writing about music. He ingratiates himself with an up and coming rock band, Stillwater, and they take him on the road, where he sees the rock lifestyle for himself.
To be clear, for this post, I watched the extended version of the film that was released on DVD a few years after the film came out. This is specifically named “Untitled”. The Untitled cut is almost 3 hours long, and I consider it the definitive version of the film.
The new cut covers a lot more of William’s young life. In the original version of the film, we just get some quick scenes with William interacting with his sister and mother before his sister leaves to become a stewardess and leaves her records behind, inspiring William’s love of music. But in the new version of the film, we see lots of scenes of William slowly figuring out that he’s younger than the other kids, and his mother revealing that he’s younger than even he realizes. We see some of this in the original film, but in this version, these moments can breathe a bit, and we spend more time in this world. The story of the film isn’t changed much in this version, but everything has more room to breathe.
The film is very autobiographical, covering moments from Cameron Crowe’s own life. He was a child prodigy just like William, and began writing for Rolling Stone when he was young. He also spent time undercover at a high school, and wrote a book about the experience, which eventually became Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he also wrote the script for. While he’s been a really successful director, it’s clear music is his first love, and this film is both a coming of age story, and a love letter to this era of music and the life of a band on the road.
And because Crowe spent so much time covering rock bands, he really knows this world, and is able to pull from his experience to create a realistic, yet relateable world.
William’s introduction to music comes in an almost mystical scene when his sister leaves her old records for him to explore when she leaves home. She leaves a note with The Who’s Tommy, telling him if he lights a candle while listening, he will see his entire future.
He does, and the film transitions a few years to William in high school. This is how the film treats music, as a force of nature. It is played by and created by humans, but it’s treated like an almighty force. It’s akin to the monolith in 2001. In order to progress in life, William has to accept this music.
William’s life changes when he meets Lester Bangs, legendary rock journalist. There are a lot of references to real-life people and bands in this film, but as far as I know, Lester Bangs is the only real person portrayed in the film. Bangs is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of his generation, and probably of all time, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
Lester Bangs is complex and unapologetic. He’s introduced doing a radio interview, which gives Hoffman a good chance to set up the character before he meets William. Bangs approaches his chat with William as if he wants to get away as soon as possible, but William’s persistence wins him over, and they go to dinner.
Throughout the film, William meets a series of mentors, and Lester is the first. Lester takes William under his wing, and tries to pull back the curtain on the world of the music industry. He warns William that the goals and values of the world he’s about to enter are not the same as his own. He also gives advice on how to defend against it and write what he wants to write.
William gets an assignment to write about Black Sabbath and goes to their concert, hoping to interview them. But things go wrong when he can’t convince the door man that he’s actually a journalist. Here he meets his second mentor, Penny Lane.
Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson is a self-proclaimed ‘band aid’. William initially identifies her as a groupie, but Penny objects, explaining that groupies are just there for sex. Band aids are there because they love the music.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Kate Hudson in this film. This was her first big role, and she’s able to create one of the most memorable characters ever put on film. Her Penny Lane is warm, and bright, and happy, but also tragic, and dark. She manages to capture all of it. She was one of two actors to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance (the other being Frances McDormand, we’ll get to her), and she really earned it. Every moment she appears on screen you simply can’t take your eyes off of her. She begins the film as a source of fun, showing William how to loosen up and appreciate life, almost satyr-like. But we always sense that she’s hiding something. That she puts up a strong front to convince everyone she’s ok. In one of my favorite moments, she and William are watching Stillwater play from backstage. William begins to take notes for his article, but Penny takes the pencil away from him, looking at him and shaking her head, incredulous. She’s teaching him the value of living in the moment, and acts as something of a guide in this new world.
Kate Hudson is so spectacular in this film, and it made her a star. But it’s a shame that a lot of her subsequent films were fluffy romantic comedies, which I kind of enjoy, but they can’t compare to Penny Lane. Lately she’s shown up in a couple more serious movies like Wish I Was Here. I don’t know if it’s just the state of roles for women on film, or a conscious choice she made to take movies that were likely to lead to more stardom and cement herself as an A-list actor, which is a totally valid choice. But either way, I really hope to see her in more serious films.
At the concert, William meets his final mentor in the film, Russell Hammond(Billy Crudup), the lead guitarist of Stillwater. When William first meets the band, Jeff Bebe(Jason Lee), the lead singer, is thrilled to talk to William about whatever happens to be in his head. But Russell is hesitant to reveal anything to William. He spends most of the film suspicious of William, but still can’t help but begin to open up to him.
Eventually, as William begins taking steps into this world, Rolling Stone magazine calls him, having found some work he’s done. They don’t know he’s a high school student, and they want him to write an article for them. He pitches them on Stillwater, and they ask him to go on the road with the band. But before he can do that, he needs to get permission from his mother.
William’s mother Elaine, played by Frances McDormand, is the other powerhouse of the film. Her character is William’s stone wall of defense, whether he wants it or not. She’s presented as a woman who does what she thinks is right regardless of what others think in the opening scene. She and young William are walking down the street discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, when she sees a shopkeeper painting a Christmas sign. He uses the shortened version “Xmas”, and Elaine corrects him, telling him that isn’t a word. The shopkeeper, bewildered thanks her, while Elaine continues on, oblivious to any social faux pas.
She also has one of the most interesting stories in the film. While William is off having his adventure, she’s dealing with being alone in the house for the first time. Her husband died long ago, and her daughter left. Now with William being gone, she begins to wonder if she is the one driving people away. Seeing her come to terms with this is a valuable addition to the film.
Frances McDormand is excellent in the film, and her Elaine is strong and powerful, and is intimidated by no one. One of my favorite moments is when William is calling home and Russell picks up the phone as a joke to say hi to his mom. While he begins cheerful and playful, Elaine puts him in his place immediately, cutting through the charm that works on everyone else he encounters. There’s a running joke of William getting cut off when speaking to his mother on the phone, and this is the payoff of that entire runner. It’s well worth all the setup.
As William gets on the road, we begin to develop the relationships between William, Penny, and the band members. The main triangle involved William, Penny and Russell. Penny is in love with Russell, and it appears he’s in love with her too, but he won’t leave his ex-wife and current girlfriend. William is clearly in love with Penny, but too inexperienced to know what to do with his feelings. Penny treats William like a little brother, while William tries to get a serious interview with Russell for his story. Russell distrusts William and keeps putting off the interview.
While the drummer and bassist are inconsequential to the story (there are a couple of scenes in the extended cut that poke fun at just how inconsequential), Jeff Bebe, the lead singer has an important role to play. While the band has become more popular, it’s clear that Russell is getting far more attention and credit for the band’s success than Jeff. Jeff feels unappreciated, while Russell feels like he’s being held back by this group of people. He says as much to William in a private moment. He tells William that he has to hold back, and can’t play everything he can, for fear of his band mates not being able to keep up with him. This sets up a really interesting tension that plays through the whole film.
There are so many great storylines and moments in the film, I could write 10,000 more words on it, but this post has to end eventually, so let’s stop there.
This film is really important to me. When people ask me what my 5 favorite movies are, this one makes the list. It has ever since I saw it for the first time.
This is a film that has changed for me over the years. When I first saw it, I focused on William and Penny, and the unrequited love, but discovering something deeper and just as valuable.
But the last couple of times I’ve watched it, I’ve focused on how William is guided through this world by the various mentors he meets. I’ve had the good fortune of having some great mentors and advocates in my life. People who have pushed me to be better, corrected me when I’ve erred, and were always available when I needed advice.
That’s what I see in the film now. This film does an amazing job of capturing that mentor relationship, and explores how a good mentor can change someone who’s being mentored, but also change the mentor themselves. All the people who guide William through this world all end up changed through their interactions with him. In fact, I’d go so far to say that William himself is one of the least interesting characters in the film. He’s the engine that keeps the story moving, and creates a window into this world, so that we can see the fascinating interactions between Penny, Russell, and everyone around them.
The Double Feature
This is probably my strongest Double Feature to date. Both films pair together so well. They’re both set in the same era, they both make heavy use of music of the era, and are both about growing up and finding guidance into the new world.
Both films have spectacular soundtracks. Every moment of each film is filled with great music, either soundtrack, or original music. Both directors have a knack for selecting music that fits in their scenes and makes us feel like we’re in the moment with the characters.
The themes of the films match as well, covering the coming of age story we’ve been talking about. They also both have excellent casts. While the cast of Dazed and Confused saw a lot of young actors who would become more established later, Almost Famous included some more established names, but still a lot of actors who became much better known because of this film.
Overall, two great films, and a really enjoyable watch.
I started this blog to take a break while I figured out what I was doing with my life, and if I was headed in the right direction. This week, I finally started to feel normal again. I even caught myself thinking about papers I might want to write. I haven’t thought about that in months and months. I think I’m back in a good place, and I’m ready to finish my PhD. At the same time, I think I’ve realized that I need the PhD to just be what I do, not my life. When I started grad school, I gave up a lot of things that I really loved to focus. But after my Masters, I decided to keep going to the PhD, and I forgot to bring some of those hobbies and interests back. I won’t make that mistake again. I’ve got the film blog, but I’m considering starting streaming video games again, just in a casual way. I think it will help me separate my work life from the rest of my life. And from here on, my health comes first. If the PhD starts interfering with my health and well-being, I won’t hesitate to walk away. It just isn’t worth it.
So let’s look at the next two films. Next post will be my 20th on this blog, and that’s a bit of a milestone, so I wanted to do something special, maybe even experimental. I’ve compared two performances from the same actor, but I’ve never compared a director to themselves before. So that sounds like fun, let’s give it a shot. The next two films are:
Alfred Hitchcock – The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock – Vertigo (1958)
So we’ll cover two Hitchcock films from different eras. One from his earlier career in England, and one from his more famous era, in Hollywood. I’ve seen both of these before, and I’m interested to see if my opinions change upon a new viewing. What are those opinions? You’ll just have to read to find out.
See you then.