Coming of Age at New York Film Festival

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by Corey O'Connell
October 16, 2012 3:09 PM
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"Ginger and Rosa."
"Coming-of-age" films can be divided into two distinct sub-genres. One, the present problems coming-of-age film, focuses on the struggles of young people in the present tense, speaking to the uniquely modern-day situations that they face. Recent films like "It’s Kind of a Funny Story" and "The Art of Getting By" have attempted to show the growing pains associated with problems such as academic pressure and depression and other mood disorders. Alternatively, there is another sub-genre: the backwards glance coming-of-age film, which uses sentimentality for a past era to define the tone of the movie. As Woody Allen might observe, this "denial of the painful present" implies a longing for that moment in life just before the final thread of innocence is severed. Films such as "Diner" and "Stand By Me" take place in the past, using the time period as a device to create a sense of yearning in adults to revisit one’s youth, and a desire in young people to relish in their youth forever.

Two pictures at this year’s New York Film Festival, David Chase’s "Not Fade Away" and Sally Potter’s "Ginger and Rosa," are strong entries in the coming-of-age genre specifically because they refuse to fit neatly into either sub-genre. Both films are set in the 1960s, so neither is a present problems coming-of-age film, but neither falls back on sentimentality like the backwards glance coming-of-age film -- neither treats young adulthood as something one longs to relive, or wants to prolong.

"Not Fade Away" takes place in suburban New Jersey and uses the era’s music to convey the radical idealism and naive hopefulness of young dreamers in comparison to their parents’ conservatism. "Ginger and Rosa," on the other hand, takes place in the UK and focuses on the darker side of the ‘60s that people aren’t wont to miss, where people lived in constant fear of nuclear war. The films follow their young protagonists through various hardships, some of which are unique to the era, but there is no wistfulness -- only a universality of experience to which any audience of any age can relate.

Garage bands were a dime a dozen in the mid ‘60s. Once The Beatles dropped "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and The Rolling Stones appeared on Dean Martin’s "Hollywood Palace," teenagers were mesmerized -- including "Not Fade Away's" Douglas (John Magaro) and his friends Gene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill). Late in high school, the three form a band, playing covers at local parties and dreaming of making it big. Though he considers joining the ROTC before he leaves for college, Douglas comes home for Thanksgiving with long hair, Cuban heels, and a new anti-establishment attitude, much to the dismay of his traditional parents (James Gandolfini and Molly Price) and the amusement of his little sister. Douglas drops out of school to pursue a career with the band, and his relationship with his parents grows more tumultuous than ever as his relationship with his girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote) grows more serious.

As a band and as individuals, the boys face a number of personal trials, from disagreements among themselves to family troubles. Though Douglas, Gene, Wells, and Bella don’t engage with the social and political atmosphere very deeply, the film’s music -- which is excellent -- keeps the focus on the young people’s entertainingly exaggerated aspirations for the future, both in terms of their career and in terms of the broader picture. Chase deftly manages to zero in on this hopefulness without creating a longing for the past. While backwards glance coming-of-age movies would portray this hopefulness in earnest, Chase gently pokes fun at the boys’ wild ambition by showing them talking about the band with extremely idealistic intentions of making a living from their music. At the movie’s end, Douglas’s sister, who serves as a fly on the wall throughout, takes center stage and poses the question: which will win out, nuclear war or rock ‘n’ roll? As she begins to dance in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, her belief is clear. Without any trace of sentimentality, she represents the bold idealism of the period’s youth, and their undying -- and somewhat unrealistic -- faith in the music that changed everything.

"Ginger and Rosa" takes the exact opposite point of view. It’s 1962, and rock ‘n’ roll hasn’t revolutionized the world yet, but the fear of nuclear war has. Growing up in this environment of constant terror are seventeen-year-old best friends Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert). While in some ways they are typical teenagers, shrinking their jeans and hitchhiking to the beach to meet up with boys, in other ways, they are very different: the reality of the nuclear bomb constantly lingers over their heads. Ginger deals with her fear by attending protest meetings and marching; Rosa searches for personal connection and "everlasting love" to give her life meaning in case it is about to end. At the same time, Ginger’s family life is falling apart. Her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) feels unappreciated, while her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) is an atheist committed to his radical principles, even though they threaten to destroy his familial relationships. Nothing about Ginger’s situation, both in the historical context and personal context, is enviable, contrary to films in the backwards glance sub-genre, which portray the past as better than the present.

While other backwards glance films often ignore the political backdrop of the period, the Cold War figures largely in “Ginger and Rosa.” When both Rosa and Roland betray her in blatant and deeply personal ways, Ginger throws herself further into her protest activities and displaces her anger onto a belief that no one cares that the world may be on the brink of extinction. In the end, Rosa asks Ginger for forgiveness, and Ginger writes to her saying, "There might not be a tomorrow... I want us all to survive... what really matters is to live, and if we do, then there will be nothing to forgive -- but I’ll forgive you anyway." In stark contrast to the more positive endings of many backwards glance coming-of-age films, Ginger presents a bleak view of the future tempered with cautious optimism.

When discussing her film at the New York Film Festival, Potter observed that, "Seeing personal things illuminated on screen is a way of getting to know ourselves." At the center of both films lie their protagonists’ personal relationships, which are shown with a vulnerability and authenticity to which an audience can easily relate. While “Not Fade Away” uses dark humor to guard against sentimentality, “Ginger and Rosa” uses the darkness of the period. Though the films take place in the 1960s, they both show their characters at universal turning points in their lives, and they grant contemporary audiences the chance to see the way their lives unfold in a time of global change on multiple scales. The films’ strength is in their sincerity: they trust their young characters to depict their struggles with genuineness in a turbulent cultural and political climate without romanticizing the time period. As Chase and Potter allow older viewers to do so without longing for what rightfully belongs in the past, and without idealizing youth for young audiences, it is a true pleasure to see Douglas and Ginger "come of age."

Corey O'Connell is an American Studies and Contemporary Arts graduate currently working in nonprofit fundraising. A big fan of adaptations and independent American cinema, she also loves music, theater, and photography, and writing about any or all of the above. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.

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