Tag Archives: coming of age movies

The Seaweed is Greener on the Other Side

Deep Sea

by Matt Weiner

Stormy seas are among the less pressing problems for a troubled young girl trying to find her way in the world, according to Deep Sea, the new animated film from writer-director Tian Xiaopeng (Monkey King: Hero Is Back).

Quiet and withdrawn Shenxiu (Tingwen Wang) dreams of finding the mother that abandoned her as a child. Her father and stepmother take the family on a cruise over Shenxiu’s birthday, but it’s not much of a mental distraction when a late-night storm throws her overboard.

She manages to find her way to a fantasy version of the world, where the cruise ship has been replaced by a floating restaurant called the Deep Sea. Its proprietor and captain is Nanhe (Xin Su), a mischievous and somewhat unscrupulous man who is more interested in getting rich quick than serving as a good steward of both ship and restaurant.

While Nanhe tries to find the right recipe to keep his patrons happy, Shenxiu’s gloomy moods are tied mysteriously to the presence of a Red Phantom, a surging mass of tendrils that threatens to engulf Shenxiu and anything in her way.

While Deep Sea at times lacks the polish and subtle charm of a Studio Ghibli tale, the film succeeds at its own version of the unique blend of terror, wonder and melancholy that comes with growing up. It’s hard not to root for Shenxiu, and that’s helped along by the expressive animation of the intrepid sea creature crew of Nanhe’s floating restaurant.

The film also trusts adolescents to handle content that can at times border on true horror, with more drowning panic than you’re likely to see in the average Disney film. The identity of the metaphorical phantom that pursues Shenxiu throughout the film might be quickly apparent to older viewers, but the emotional climax is no less moving.

And for all the ocean setpieces—which are stunning—it’s often the small touches that cut the deepest. Like Shenxiu’s lone birthday message from her cell phone provider, rather than friends or family. Or the image of a small girl lost in a storm, crying out to her mother.

The sea might be a cruel mistress, but in Xiaopeng’s coming of age tale it’s nothing compared to the pain of embracing life and growing up in the face of hardship.

Persona Non Grata


by Matt Weiner

A woman trespassing in a cabin in the woods tends to foretell a very different kind of film than Clementine’s smart, sensual coming-of-age story.

But writer and director Lara Jean Gallagher’s feature debut, while exploring the relationships that make (and break) us, also doesn’t spare the menace lurking just beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the remote cabin in the woods vibe, but it’s also in large part due to the beautiful gauzy shots of the Pacific Northwest from cinematographer Andres Karu that manage to feel always just on the cusp of sliding from languid daydream to nightmare.

Gallagher brings the same inseparable emotions to the story. When Karen (Otmara Marrero) flees Los Angeles and a toxic relationship to break into her ex’s cabin in Oregon, she discovers that she’s not the only interloper in the area. A young aspiring actress Lana (Sydney Sweeney) is also crashing at a nearby house, but quickly finds herself drawn to Karen, open to either validation or love, but undecided on which would be more important.

Their relationship starts out relatively chaste, with Karen still smarting from her breakup and wary about the age gap between her and Lana. Driven by a powerful and nuanced performance from Sweeney, Lana’s mix of aloofness and desire turns even the slightest touch into a highly charged event that seems to stop time. 

There are the aching moments between Karen and Lana as the two bond over heartbreak and trauma. But the sharpest emotional insight that Gallagher brings to her tightly crafted coming-of-age story is to structure it as a psychological drama—one that gets increasingly fraught as the two women push and pull each other into their respective lives.

It makes perfect sense though. Trying to discover who we are as teenagers was horrifying enough, but Karen is an unsettling reminder that learning from these mistakes is an imperfect, lifelong process. The thought that adolescence can be a terror not so removed from Hitchcock is a sobering realization. That we might continue to repeat these traumas, and enact them on the ones we love most, is a horrifying one.

You, Me and Everyone

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

by Hope Madden

Whatever its flaws and familiarities, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl delivers a heartfelt, understated but affecting punch.

The “Me” of the title is Greg (the ageless Thomas Mann), who describes himself as “terminally awkward, with a face like a little groundhog.” Greg treasures the anonymity he’s carved out by being superficially accepted and forgotten by every clique in his school. He and his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he considers more of a co-worker, hide out at lunch in the history teacher’s office, and make movie parodies (A Sockwork Orange, Pooping Tom) in their spare time.

Then Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists that he befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who’s been diagnosed with leukemia.

Yep, it’s a quirky coming-of-age dramedy with cancer overtones. Who’d have thought this would become such a popular concept?

Regardless of the well-worn terrain, the film offers a bright, often unpredictable charm mixed with a wonderfully morbid sense of humor. All performances are solid, especially that of Molly Shannon as the bubbly yet grieving and usually drunk mother.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cuts a new career path with this indie dramedy, but he and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel) miss a pretty important point.

No matter who you are or how many friends you had or how many parties you went to, you probably remember your high school self as socially awkward. Nothing fuels a coming-of-age film quite like this idea, when usually the protagonist (and maybe the writer, and nearly every teen in history) is just burdened by narcissism and self-loathing. It’s a small but important distinction, and one that very few coming-of-age tales get right. Getting that tiny point right is the difference between a work of genius like Napoleon Dynamite and a self-congratulatory confection like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is considerably better than most films that miss that point, but it still misses it. The perfectly likeable protagonist believes himself to be terminally awkward and what he needs is for the one-dimensional (if truly likeable) characters around him to show him he’s actually pretty great. That is, to placate his narcissism while soothing his self-loathing as they gain nothing themselves.

Most of us remember some coming-of-age film from our own adolescence with needless but genuine nostalgia and affection. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl can be that movie – The Breakfast Club or Grease or Mean Girls for this generation. But, like most teens, it can’t quite get past itself to become great.