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Tag: coming of age (page 1 of 2)

What is a heterotopia?

I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.

heterotopia

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Hetereotopia is based on the concept of utopia. The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’. The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’. So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word utopia has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

Continue reading

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover

Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore film poster

Continue reading

We Are The Best (2013) Storytelling

We Are The Best is a Swedish film adaptation of Coco Moodysson’s (director Moodysson’s wife’s) autobiographical graphic novel which she never completely finished.

We Are The Best film poster

PREMISE OF WE ARE THE BEST

Three girls in 1980s Stockholm decide to form a punk band — despite not having any instruments and being told by everyone that punk is dead.

STORY WORLD OF WE ARE THE BEST

  1. The year is 1982. This is the world of punk, and without having the graphic novel in front of me (which looks like it stars punk characters), the director definitely prides himself on being a punk and antiestablishment. In the early 80s punk had supposedly died and New Wave ruled.
  2. The creator of the autobigraphical graphic novel says there were no role models around that time for girls of this age. There were Swedish girl bands, but they were older and their songs were about having sex “and we thought that was disgusting. We wanted to look tougher, like boys.” A modern audience might at first read these girls as proto-lesbian but context is clue; these girls are perhaps a little femme phobic, and have definitely grown up in an environment which equates toughness with masculinity. So that’s where that comes from.
  3.  Stockholm, Sweden. These are city kids who seem to attend public school but without the ‘inner city’ problems you might find in somewhere like America. There’s enough money. That’s where some irony comes in — these girls are too young and too sheltered to really know what they’re standing up against.
  4. Winter.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WE ARE THE BEST

Self-revelation, need, desire

This is a coming-of-age story. I believe the characters are 13. Mira Barkhammar, who plays Bobo , was actually 13 during filming. Mira Grosin, who plays Klara, was only 11; Liv LeMoyne, as Hedvig, was the eldest at 14. Anything around this age is the classic time for a coming-of-age tale.

In the first scene Bobo has already begun her transformation. She has cut her hair, and we see her mother embarrassing her by pointing out the new short cut to a large gathering of adult friends at a party. Over the course of this story, Bobo learns that she doesn’t need to play second fiddle to her more exuberant, prettier friend Klara. She takes the first step with a boy. Rather than being the follower of Klara, the addition of the conservative Christian Hedvig to their group means that Bobo learns, like Hedvig, to think for herself. She also learns not to let a boy come between her and her best girlfriends.

At the beginning Bobo already knows that she doesn’t want to be like everybody else. This is what has drawn her to punk. But she hasn’t yet learnt to be her own person entirely — she’s under the influence of Klara.

She is wrong about her own uniqueness and individuality. She professes to not care about what others think of her, but she is deeply wounded by rejection from the boys who she doesn’t even like. She’s on the right track to intellectual freedom, but her need for peer acceptance is holding her back.

She is also dismissive of everything and anyone who doesn’t fit her version of cool. She can’t accept Hedvig as a friend without wanting to change her first. She is dismissive of other people’s musical tastes, including Hedvig’s.

At first it seems as if Hedvig changes the most — why isn’t she the (secret?) hero? But take a closer look and you’ll see that even though Hedvig has her hair cut, she hasn’t changed that much; she is solid and independent at the beginning of the film, and remains so throughout. Sure, she’s gained two new friends and become more cool than she was, but she is still the same basic person. Bobo definitely ‘grows’ more than either Hedvig or Klara. Klara doesn’t really demonstrate that she’s changed at all. She thinks she’s the best at the beginning of the film, and even in the final scene she declares ‘I am the best’, showing that she’s all about her own self. She genuinely doesn’t care about other people, or what they think — even when those people are her best friends.

Ghost

Later in the film, when Bobo is being comforted by Klara after throwing up on Klara’s older brother’s records, Bobo tells Klara that she’s sick of Klara getting all the boys and being invited to all the parties. We don’t know it at the start, but Bobo has a history of rejection. This explains in retrospect why she has been drawn to punk and to Klara, and why she is so upset when Klara hooks up with the punk boy they go to meet.

Story World

The arena is a school and its local surrounds in Stockholm, Sweden.

They are heading into winter time and snow has settled on the ground. This means the characters are forced to basically live indoors, except for the scene on the roof, when Bobo sort of threatens to jump off. The season is significant because it’s an ironic one — coming of age stories are often about ‘blooming’, and therefore spring, but punk is an ironic, subversive, transgressive genre, and so the story inverts the usual season and has Bobo heading in to winter.

The city is an entirely man-made space.

The important tool for the girls is an electric guitar, because an electric guitar will propel them into the realm of ‘cool’, or so they think.

This is a contemporary story set around 2013.

Weakness & Need (& Problem)

Bobo has distanced herself from the crowd, which is fine, except her only ally in the world is Klara, who is an imperfect friend. Klara can be a little callous, and is inclined to take the limelight. Bobo has no self-confidence. Feeling she is ugly, she has cut off her hair and refused make-up to buck the expectations of her gender.

Under Klara’s influence, Bobo also can treat others badly, which appears when the two of them basically bully Hedvig into getting a punk haircut.

Bobo’s crisis at the beginning of the story is that she is not accepted by her peers, namely boys. She has no idea how to fix this and doesn’t even know she wants to.

Inciting Incident

Bobo and Klara impetuously decide to start a punk band and participate in the autumn concert. But they are too late, and the middle-aged woman in charge says they’ll have to come back next year. This annoys Klara so much that she thinks if she can’t play in the autumn concert she doesn’t want to play at all. But they decide to keep playing so they can show everyone just how good they can be.

But actually there is a series of three inciting incidents. This is preceded by the older boys calling them ugly. The girls decide to book the drum room, partly to piss them off and partly because they genuinely want to start a band. The desire to perform in the autumn concert comes out of that.

The audience can see that these girls are nowhere near good enough to play in any concert. They’re full of verve but have no skill. By putting themselves forward, they’re risking further and more permanent rejection, which puts the audience on edge. (Similar to About A Boy.) In this way, the two girls have got themselves into ‘the worst trouble of their lives’.

Desire

Bobo wants to be cool in a non-mainstream way. She is a conformist non-conformist. The goal that extends throughout the story — the concrete goal — is to perform in front of an audience and achieve accolades of some kind.

The importance of this desire increases throughout the story because with the addition of an accomplished and gifted musician (Hedvig) they become genuinely accomplished. The stakes become higher because the friendship between Bobo and Klara is compromised over a boy, so they need to reunite, and they can do this by working in unison to perform a concert.

Ally/Allies

Bobo’s main ally is her best friend Klara. Klara and Bobo share the same desire of wanting to prove themselves punk and prove themselves to be cool.

Opponent

The most obvious opponents (though they are numerous they’re basically one personality) are the older boys at school who refuse to take the girls seriously. They call them ugly and try to bar them from the drum room and insist on calling theirs a ‘girl band’. The boys, too, are competing for the goal of performing on stage and winning cool points.

Bobo’s mother is oblivious to Bobo’s inner workings, and doesn’t realise that by drawing attention to her daughter’s hair in front of a crowd she is being excruciatingly inappropriate — Bobo cut her hair to avoid attention rather than to get it — her whole point is that looks shouldn’t matter, so compliments defeat the point.

Fake-ally opponent

Klara is the fake-ally opponent — sometimes ally, sometimes opponent — if only because she does ‘punk’ better. She has a more genuinely punk hair cut. She probably rates higher on the sociopathic spectrum, and is able to genuinely not care. Bobo doesn’t have this luxury. She is empathetic, as demonstrated when her mother breaks up with the latest man friend. By following Klara, Bobo is self-sabotaging, somewhat. Klara wants Bobo to be cool, but she wants to keep her in her place. She doesn’t want her to go out with her brother, for instance, shitting all over the fact that Bobo likes him. Both Klara and Bobo are competing for the exact same goal, so that’s good.

Klara has sufficient complexity to be this person. She knows about the party the boys are having, but hasn’t revealed it to Bobo. She appears to be up-front about everything, but her candour comes across as aggressive. “I just want to check you’re not jealous, or anything.”

The other interesting thing about Klara is that she starts to feel more like Bobo’s ally as the story progresses. By the end of the film they are on a more equal footing, despite Klara maintaining that ‘she’ is the best, despite Hedvig protesting that ‘we are the best’.

In this story, Klara was introduced after Bobo. Klara has no specific plan to bring her friend down — hers is more of an ignorant dilemma.

Changed Desire And Motive/First Revelation & Decision

While the girls started off wanting to perform in the autumn concert not caring that they sounded shit, they changed to wanting to learn their instruments properly after witnessing Hedvig on stage. (The reveal is that Hedvig is pretty good at music, even though she’s super uncool.)

Plan

Now they’ll persuade Hedvig to teach them about music, and in turn they’ll draw her out of Christianity so she can be cool like them. (And she won’t bring them down.)

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

The boys continue to undermine the girls.

Klara has a plan to contact some punk boys they know of, so they can go and meet and make boyfriends. But she doesn’t really care about whether the other two make boyfriends. While Klara is not deliberately evil, these scenes give the audience a chance to see the regular dynamic that goes on between these two best friends.

Drive

Klara decides to get Bobo back. She calls the boy who liked Klara (though he doesn’t seem to any more) and arranges a meet up. She wants to persuade him to be her boyfriend, not Klara’s. She manages this, though the boy tells Bobo he’ll have to break up with Klara first, then never does. Calling your best friend’s boyfriend is a bit of an immoral action, even if the relationship seems to have fizzled. But Bobo is desperate for acceptance. We see this when she spits on her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Bobo’s actions have now changed in a fundamental way because before this she would never have gone behind Klara’s back, or assumed she could take a boy from Klara.

Attack by ally

There are two plots in this story: There’s the conflict between Bobo/Klara and Hedvig (or Hedvig’s mother), then there is the battle between Bobo and Klara as they each wrestle for power within the relationship.

In the first plot line, Hedvig’s mother is the voice of reason when she calls the girls to her house for tea and biscuits then gives them an example about how they shouldn’t try to change someone just because they want to be her friend. You have to accept people as they come.

In the other plot line, Hedvig (her mother’s daughter) is the voice of reason the whole way through, encouraging the girls to reconcile. She’s not a very outspoken girl, so she needs to be pressed to say much, but there are conversations in bedrooms during which Hedwig refuses to join in with the other two when it comes to shitting over other people’s likes.

Apparent Defeat

Despite every effort to be cool, even cutting her hair short like Klara’s, Bobo still misses out on a boy she really likes. We see how devastating this is for Bobo when she jumps around on the roof, risking her life, trying to divert the hug that’s going on between her best friend and the boy she likes.

Obsessive drive/changed drive

The revelation Bobo has is that: No matter how hard she has tried, she cannot win boys as long as Klara’s around.

She’s going to have to take control.

Audience Revelation

Sure enough, when we see Klara and Bobo in action with the boys, we not only see the day in its own right, but we see the whole history of their friendship. We see that Klara is indeed more popular with the boys (at first) and that Bobo plays second fiddle. We are probably older and wiser (this is a film for adults) and know more about the friendship dynamics than Bobo does. Because of this history, we are now given a little distance between ourselves and Bobo, and we’ll see why she does what she does, by calling the boyfriend.

Gate/Gauntlet/Visit to Death

Bobo spitting on the mirror shows us that she has reached rock bottom in self-esteem. It happens after their visit to see the boys.

Battle

Sure enough, there is a showdown between Bobo and Klara when Bobo tells Klara that the boy has been ‘cheating on you… with me’. The fight gets physical and is broken up by pacifist Hedvig. This shows how similar Bobo and Klara are at this point.

Self-revelation

Bobo learns that she can’t be Klara, but she is just as worthy as Klara.

Bobo has also learned from Hedvig that you can’t change people in order for them to be your friend, and she applies this same revelation to herself. She can’t change herself to fit her ‘ideal version of a friend’.

Moral decision

Bobo has learned that she must ‘be herself’ rather than be a follower. She demonstrates this resolve onstage with the audience booing at her.

New Equilibrium

This is demonstrated on the bus home in the final scene after their disastrous concert. They have been rejected in the most terrible way — an entire audience turned against them. But they are determined to call themselves ‘the best’ anyway.

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

Carrie movie poster

 

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading

Film Study: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is a metafictive coming-of-age film based on a young adult novel by the same name. The book is an example of sick-lit.

Greg […] is coasting through senior year of high school as anonymously as possible, avoiding social interactions like the plague while secretly making spirited, bizarre films with Earl, his only friend. But both his anonymity and friendship threaten to unravel when his mother forces him to befriend a classmate with leukemia.

Deadline Hollywood

 

Okay, I admit it. I thought, “This is very much like The Fault In Our Stars.”

But remember, the sick-lit genre popular in this Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature did not actually start with John Green’s YA novel — it started way back in the late 1990s with The Lovely Bones.

The YA novel by Jesse Andrews Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was published in 2012 and released as a film three years later in 2015. Jesse Andrews was the main scriptwriter for that. Here I’ll be talking about the film because I haven’t read the book.

Apart from a breakdown of story structure, in this post I’d like to touch on:

  • “sick-lit” — yes, it’s a derisive term but what else can I call it?
  • the female maturity principle
  • mothers in coming-of-age stories
  • tear-jerkiness and how to achieve it
  • the metafictive elements of this self-aware coming-of-age tale

TAGLINE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

“A little friendship never killed anyone.”

GENRE BLEND OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

drama, comedy >> coming-of-age tearjerker

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

I’m having trouble with this. Could it really be as simple as:

Sometimes it takes proximal death to teach us the value of life?

STORYWORLD OF ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

The author himself attended Schenley High School, Oakland, Pittsburgh, not that long ago (as of 2017 he’s only 34). The story is set there, and suburban surrounds.

The majority of the film adaptation was actually taped at Schenley High School.  When the cameras showed us the corridors from above I noticed that the tops of the lockers were dusty and the place had a general run-down look to it compared to slightly more glossy depictions of high schools in other teen dramas coming out of America. As it turns out, this may not have been because the set designers were actively aiming for a run-down state school — the real Schenley High School closed its doors back in 2008 after 99 years. This was originally an expensive school to build — one of the first to cost a million dollars, which was a lot back then. In 2013 the historic but closed school was sold to some developers who plan to turn it into luxury apartments. Anyhow, the filmmakers must have scooted in there before that happened. Continue reading

Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant. After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.

The Kings Of Summer movie poster

 

GENRE BLEND OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’. Continue reading

Storytelling Tips From The Edge Of Seventeen

The Edge Of Seventeen movie poster

This is a coming-of-age movie about an American girl called Nadine who struggles to fit in. That could describe many of us in our teen years, but with Nadine there’s a bit more to it.

STORY STRUCTURE

The film opens to a witty, high stakes dialogue scene in which Nadine rushes to her history teacher and tells him she’s going to kill herself. Mr Bruner is an excellent contrast to Nadine because he is calm and ironic and on the face of it, cruel. Nothing is a drama to him, not even suicide threats from students.

Next we have Nadine as storyteller narrator guiding us through her early life. This ends with her father dying two years back, and she sums this period up as ‘it was shit’ so she doesn’t bore us with the details. The father is grounded while the mother is not. Basically, the writers are taking a girl and doing the worst possible thing to her — taking away her father just as she enters the adult world. We’ve seen just enough of the father to fall in love with him ourselves, too.

When we’re in ‘the present’ the story starts in earnest, with Nadine talking to her best friend under a tree at lunch break, announcing her desire to have sex.

Continue reading

Adventureland Storytelling Techniques

adventureland movie poster

GENRE BLEND

comedy, drama, romance >> true life

Comedies in this sense always have happy endings, and they characters have sex.

It could’ve been a true life story because Mottola really did work at a theme park. But he was steered away from the True Stories genre and gave his story the Hollywood gloss hoping it would turn out like Superbad. But ultimately he chose to portray all of the messiness of his relationships, his stupid decisions, and grand failures as they really happened, which makes it more drama than comedy. It ends up being quite different from Superbad. As John Truby says, the story is both cathartic and believable — more a “memoir” than a “based upon.”

The True Life stories genre can surprise an audience by diverting from the expected because life is also like that.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ADVENTURELAND

Before I take a close look at John Truby’s story structure, this is one film Truby has taken a look at himself on his own blog. Here are a few things he has to say about it:

  • Constructed as a classical comedy, very like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Young people coming of age leave adult society to enter a forest (in this case, an amusement park) where they work out, after some false starts, their sexual coming of age and prepare to re-enter society. 
  • The move away from a comedy like Superbad makes Adventureland refreshingly authentic, if not tied up in a nice, neat bundle.
  • The battle and new equilibrium are there.
  • The hero and love opponent both complete arcs that the writer could have easily idealized, 20 years after the fact, having gone through several more relationships.
  • This could easily have been overly-preachy, filled with the banalities of a college grad acting as a fish out of water amongst the under-educated. In fact, Mottola went the opposite route.
  • The most intelligent character is poor [Joel] who has no plans for his future, but the hero immediately recognizes the kinship they will have and befriends his coworker. He makes allies with nearly all of his coworkers, and gets along well with his bosses, too. The effect was a strong character web from which most of the comedy of the story could grow — a style used commonly by Judd Apatow, a frequent collaborator with Greg Mottola. [See Freaks and Geeks for an example of Apatow’s excellent character webbing.]

Self-revelation, need, desire

1. James will learn how to treat a woman well, enough to begin his first romantic relationship. (No gossiping about her secrets when you’ve had a fight, no looking around at other girls when you’re keen on one in particular.)

2. He knows the difference between love and sex. Until now he has been waiting for both at once and is therefore still a virgin.

3. James is too naive to function as an adult in society.

Ghost (backstory)

The elephant in the room is James’s virginity, a symbol for general lack of maturity. This lack of experience is the thing that will hold him back. (A non-event rather than an event.) There’s also the ending of the 11 day romance which went nowhere — he has had his heart disproportionately broken by that rejection. The virginity comes out on his first date with Em, who asks if he’s ‘had a lot of girls’.

Em has the ghost of a recent troubled past and we soon learn that she’s in a horrible relationship with a horrible, married man.

Storyworld

This is an enslaving world, as most stories are. James is in a hole due to his parents no longer supporting him financially and his lack of life experience.

1. This is a great arena — a cheesy, kitsch adventure park frequented by proto-Trump voter types and staffed by eccentrics.

2. Beyond the park there are hills and sea. We do get a glimpse of this — the characters can see that there is more outside the Adventureland — the main characters are all far too overqualified to be working in such a deadend job.

3. It’s summer — the classic time for university students to either finish their education or get a job. Summer is a more carefree season, where James will let his guard down just a little bit, smoking pot and socialising with people he wouldn’t normally see ever.

4. The man-made space of the Adventureland park is made up of many little islands of faux-fun. This place is supposed to be fun, but it’s really not. It’s repetitive and mindless and sometimes dangerous.

5. Technology — There are gimmicky games in the park, like games where you shoot a (glued-on) hat off a mannequin. Some of these are symbolic. For example, when Connell bursts James’s bubble, a balloon he’s blowing up literally bursts. Stuffed bananas stand in for manhood (with suggestions that James is lacking in it). The lightbulb montage in the opening credits perhaps symbolise ‘lightbulb moments’ for James, since this is a coming-of-age story.

6. The story is set in 1987, because this is a memoir. The clothes, drugs, food choices, possible venues of entertainment and the prejudices etc of the characters (no dating Jews for the Catholic girls) are specific to the era.

Weakness & Need (Problem)

James’s psychological weakness: He is naive in general after too much book learning and not enough life experience. He is the underdog among his male peers. He hasn’t grown up yet, still at the mercy of his parents’ financial situation even though he’s just had 4 years of college. He needs to grow up now. He is too ingratiating at times.

Moral weakness: He is too reliant on his parents. He is basically very nice to other people, but he throws a bit of a tantrum and does a lot of damage in this story.

In order to have a better life: James needs to learn to treat women with full respect and be less ingratiating to other people — men in particular. (This is a highly gendered story.)

Problem: The crisis at the beginning of the story is that James wants to go to grad school at Columbia to study journalism but his parents can no longer bankroll him. Nor can he go on the trip to Europe with his rich buddy. So he’s going to have to find a summer job, but he has absolutely no practical experience in anything except mowing the neighbour’s lawn.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident (above) is revealed at the restaurant with his parents. It connects need and desire — the thing that’s the most wrong with James is that he can’t stand on his own two feet, but now he’s going to have to.

Desire

James’s goal is to save enough money to move to NYC and do a postgrad year of journalism. He wants to report on real events of the world, which is why a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough for him.

Ally/Allies

At his new job he quickly meets Joel, an even more nerdy and highly qualified version of himself.

He also meets Em, who saves him from getting knifed by some white trash guy who cheats to get a giant panda for his son.

Opponent

There’s a super annoying little guy called Frigo who, even though smaller than James, is constantly undermining his manhood by punching him in the balls and similar.

Mystery

Fake-Ally Opponent

Connell is the repairs guy who helps run the show. He appears to be an ally by taking James under his wing and giving girl advice but in fact he’s keeping tabs on Em, because he knows Em is going out with James. In reality, he’s standing in the way of James’s happiness with Em.

Changed Desire and Motive

This comes later: When James no longer has the money to study in NYC due to totalling his parents’ car, he still wants to move to NYC, but this time he’ll take a year off to continue his worldly education, focus on his relationship with Em, and perhaps attend grad school the following year.

First Revelation and Decision

Although he likes Em, Em doesn’t feel the same way about him (or isn’t in a position to commit).

So he decides to take Lisa P up on her offer to go out with her.

Plan

James’s plan is to ask Em out, be super nice to her and hopefully she’ll want to date him exclusively. They will then continue their relationship in NYC after the summer.

James will have to dig deep and come up with a better strategy because Em is already ‘taken’, and Connell is standing in his way. He’ll have to first uncover the truth of the situation and then grow morally alongside Em.

Opponent’s Plan and Main Counterattack

Connell wants to keep Em apart from James so that he can continue having sex with Em in his mother’s basement.

Connell’s plan is visible to the audience, but another opponent is Lisa P. We don’t see how gossipy and unreliable she is until James does. (Though we might guess.)

Drive

He will follow Em to see if what he’s learned about Em and Connell is true.

Connell is a strong opponent though, because he’s manly and he’s having sex with Em already.

This is when he has his meltdown, in which he is newly irresponsible in a way that shows us he has fundamentally changed after this experience of first real love. He’s never been hurt like this before.

Attack By Ally

Joel quits the place in disgust after being attacked by a guy over the glued-on-hats. So James visits him at his home. In the story, the reason for this is to try and persuade Joel to come back to work, but the plotting reason is so that Joel can confront James about how shitty it is to go out with Lisa P when the girl he really likes is Em.

Apparent Defeat

Em has also quit Adventureland, and it appears James will never see her again, either. By telling Lisa P about Em and Connell, he’s started a horrible gossip mill and has dug himself into a hole.

Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive, and Motive

After setting his sights on Em, he’s now going to have a go with Lisa P, for the experience if nothing else. He’s been absorbing the message that ‘men have needs’.

Second revelation and decision

On a date with Lisa P, he realises the two of them have nothing in common.

The next day, Em apologises to him for being non-committal and James realises he’s made a mistake. He will refocus his attentions on Em.

Audience revelation

The audience is aware of the relationship between Em and Connell long before James is. This allows us to feel sorry for him and empathise. But when Lisa P reveals to James that Connell regularly takes girls to his mother’s basement, we should feel a whole new level of disgust for Connell, and begin to feel a little more sorry for Em, who has also lost her mother recently and is dealing with an unpleasant step-mother.

Third Revelation and Decision

At this point James realises who Connell really is. This is shown in the scene at Adventureland where James sees him talking to a group of three, young, pretty women — we all know that Connell is already onto his next pretty young things. He also corrects Connell on a matter of music trivia, showing that Connell has been full of shit about playing with a famous artist back in the day — and James now knows he’s full of shit in general.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

James totals his parents car after getting drunk, when he realises the girl he likes has been seeing Connell all this time.

Battle

There’s a battle scene between James and Em after James follows her and asks her what the hell she’s doing with Connell and why didn’t she tell him.

Self-revelation

While sitting on a hilltop with Joel (the classic place for revelations, since Moses), they talk about nothing particularly significant, but it’s clear that James has had some sort of quiet epiphany. This is evidenced by the fact he stands up and gives Frigo a knee in the balls. (I assume that’s the entire reason Frigo is in the scene — to allow the audience to see how much James has grown up — he is no longer overly ingratiating)

Moral Decision

James has two choices: He can stay in his home town and go to a nearby journalism school, probably ending up with an internship on Mr Rogers — this is shown in a dining table scene with his parents — this would be tragic for James, as Mr Rogers is a children’s show and would symbolise a permanent regression to childhood. Or he can go to NYC anyway, embrace uncertainty and stand on his own two feet.

New Equilibrium

After a romantic speech in the rain after waiting for Em outside her new NYC apartment, both parties admit that they fucked up over summer. Now they will start again, on different turf, away from the Adventureland arena.

What Is A “Coming-of-age” Story?

coming-of-age movie the edge of seventeen

Definition

A coming of age is a genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre. It relies on emotional responses and dialogue rather than action.

There are many children’s stories (or stories about children) in which the child loses their innocence. When that character is a bit older (adolescent) then it’s called a coming-of-age story.

Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn’t you. That isn’t you at all.

— Leila Sales

The Structure Of A Coming-of-age Story

At the beginning of the story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control (the death of a brother in Stand By Me; a dystopian society in The Hunger Games; the social pressure and institutional indifference of school in The Breakfast Club).

After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, he is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse (Katniss’ sister being chosen for the hunger games; the introduction of the bully in Karate Kid), or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain (the report of a dead body in Stand By Me; the Rolling Stone assignment in Almost Famous). In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.

As with any character arc, it is in this journey that their transformation occurs. But in coming of age stories, the conflicts the characters face force them to realize that they are now on their own, that parents, friends and society will not save them, and they must rely on themselves. And with this painful realization comes each hero’s individuation. He now defines himself and stands up for who he is – usually in defiance of parents or figures of authority.

So at the end of the journeys in the movies above – and in all coming of age stories – the world has not changed. It’s as painful and inhospitable as ever. But the hero is now equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living his or her essence.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

I have a friend who swears she can’t stand any kind of coming-of-age story. I think this is because her definition is a little narrower than mine — she’s thinking of the genre typified by the likes of American Pie.

In one sense, all memorable stories are coming of age stories, if what we mean by the term is a story about someone who moves from one stage of development to a more advanced one. […] Films explicitly labeled a “coming-of-age story,” however, are often about nothing more than someone’s becoming aware of sex.

— Howard Suber

This seems to be the common message of coming-of-age stories for a YA audience:

You’re not going to die. Here’s the white-hot truth: if you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired… it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.

— Danielle LaPorte

Features of a Coming-of-age Story

  • Coming-of-age stories tend to emphasise dialogue or internal monologue over action.
  • They are often set in the past.
  • The heroes of coming-of-age stories are typically teenagers. Almost without exception, coming of age stories are about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, from being defined by family or society to defining oneself. The hero is somewhere between 10-years-old (Elliott in E.T.) and late teens (the four heroes of American Graffiti).

So What Is A Bildungsroman?

My friend who can’t stand coming-of-age stories is probably fine with the bildungsroman.

  • The bildungsroman is a specific subgenre of coming-of-age story. It is especially prominent in literature and focuses on the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth, and thus character change is extremely important.
  • The German translates as ’novel of formation’ or ‘novel of education’.
  • The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune.
  • Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey.
  • The goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty.
  • The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he/she is ultimately accepted into society — the protagonist’s mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

Examples of Coming-of-age Stories

  • The Bell Jar
  • The Catcher In The Rye
  • The Wonder Years – an adolescent boy comes of age in 1960s America, an especially good setting for a coming-of-age series because that’s when America herself was going through some kind of ‘psychological growth’.
  • Mad Men – in this show a number of characters come of age. Peggy and Joan are the ‘secret protagonists’, set against Don Draper who will never change much.
  • Freaks and Geeks – a ‘Breaking Bad’ kind of plot in which a good girl learns to break free of her nerdy reputation
  • The Breakfast Club
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower – the book is far better than the film
  • Malcolm In The Middle
  • Happy Days
  • The Secret Life Of Bees
  • Never Let Me Go
  • Sons and Lovers – a sexual awakening, which is one thing today’s worst teen coming-of-age movies have in common
  • A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
  • What Maisie Knew – although Maisie is still very young she loses her childhood innocence very young.
  • Huck Finn
  • About A Boy – in this case the main character is far too old to be living like a teenager and his young protege is more emotionally aware than he is. This, of course, is the point of the story.
  • The Outsiders – This book changed YA fiction forever, not least because it was written by someone who was still a teenager herself.
  • Harry Potter
  • Gone With The Wind
  • Adventureland – The main character has just finished university, but as he says into the phone at the beginning of the story he has been so focused on academics that he has no life experience to speak of.
  • We Are The Best – a group of girls about 12 or 13 years old
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