Short comedies and indie films flooded our screens in 2016 with contemporary twists on coming-of-age tropes and actors who are actually teenagers
You might have noticed – coming-of-age narratives are making a comeback on TV and in film. Shows like Australia’s Please Like Me, Norway’s Skam and the UK’s Chewing Gum are short comedic suppositories, mostly 20 to 30 minutes in length, providing glimpses of teens and young adults growing up and sorting their shit out in painfully awkward, hysterical ways. Everyone you know might be talking about Westworld, Black Mirror or Netflix’s new series The OA, but these fringe shows are gaining popularity for their ability to shove aside prestige dramas with their stunning simplicity. They’re a welcome backlash to mid-aughts high-gloss teen dramas that favour drink throwing over uncomfortably talking out issues.
Anxiety of self is a strange common ground on which young people find themselves, and the openness you see on Tumblr (for good or bad) is finally starting to bleed into TV and film. Surface level plots like being expelled for attending a party are replaced with candid discussions about teenagers’ innermost anxieties. No more do we see 25-year-olds flipping their hair and punching open lockers. We see real teens with acne questioning each other about each other’s problems – tough stuff they may not fully understand – instead of brushing over them to find a solution. Skam, Please Like Me and Chewing Gum are just a few examples of an authentic representation of life’s most vulnerable period of growth. We crave, and are finally being served, our own reality. Best of all, these shows are funny.
Ever since Please Like Me hit Netflix, I received texts from two separate friends asking if I’d checked it out. Although its fourth season just wrapped, it’s a show just catching on outside of its native Australia. Created by comedian Josh Thomas, that annoying friend you can only handle in small doses, its closest predecessor could be said to be early seasons of Girls. The inciting incident is pretty intense. Josh’s girlfriend breaks up with him, accusing him of being gay. Simultaneously, his mum attempts suicide. Those events provide an unlikely launchpad for the absurd situational humour. Josh embraces his sexuality and thumbs his way through Grindr, making up for lost time. Sometimes, these situations are farfetched. Always, they’re hilarious: for example, Josh’s housemate Tom orders a prostitute but hides inside when she arrives, afraid to open the door. It’s a truly innovative show about owning up to your mistakes and being a decent friend. Even when nothing “happens”, the shenanigans this tight knit group gets up to are enough to prod the most boring person out of their doldrums. It shouts, “Do something!”
Norway’s hit teen series Skam, which is headed for the unavoidable American remake and inspiring unofficial merchandise, was the result of a nationwide tour of Norwegian schools to ask teens what they deal with, how they talk, and what they care about. Creator Julie Andem fashioned a TV show that whacked adolescent tropes on upside the head with its groundbreaking idea of actual teens playing teens. (These are not 25-year-olds wearing Abercrombie.) Short clips are released online in real-time as they happen – if a date takes place on Tuesday at 7pm, that’s when the clip is posted. Every character has his or her own Instagram, meaning fans can interact with their faves in the breaks between clips. All the clips are assembled for a new episode every Friday. It trades in issues like homophobia, Islamophobia, slut-shaming, and sexual harassment without brushing them off as plot devices. Another late bloomer, season three of Skam just finished, but pulled in scores of new fans who grew obsessed with the brutally honest gay relationship between two boys, Isak and Even.
Chewing Gum, a UK export ready for bingeing on Netflix, is straight up wacky. The sitcom, telegraphed from the peculiar conscience of Michaela Coel, is a total riot. It uses humour to great effect, charting the trials and tribulations of religious virgin Tracey. She lives on a council estate, and is hell bent on giving away her V-card to fiancé Ronald. A show that’s literally about the pursuit of sex is what makes this so relatable – it’s goofy but right in line with normal conversations you’d have with your mates about who you next want to hook up with. When Ronald dodges her advances, Tracey sets her sights on Connor. This is like TLC’s awkward Love at First Kiss mixed with Nathan For You. More people should watch it.
Forgotten too soon, Netflix’s mammoth production The Get Down slunk into obscurity only days after launching. Its $120 million budget didn’t help it escape the pitfalls of any large production, but Baz Luhrmann channeled his Great Gatsby grandeur into a visual portage of the birth of hip hop. Sure, it’s not perfect, but where else will you see young black kids fighting gentrification by spitting rhymes and fobbing off concerned parents to have back alley DJ battles? Where else will you see Jaden Smith’s gay kiss? It saddens me that this series was cut short before it had a chance to flourish, not least because Netflix released six episodes of a 12 episode series because it was taking too long to finish. Little wonder the end result was confused. Still, The Get Down charmingly served up important New York history through raps and chair-grinding show tunes.
Search Party, a TBS series that tracked Dory’s obsessive search for her missing high school friend, was chock-full of American adumbration, but if this TV show were fashion, it would be the most tightly edited capsule collection on the market. We watch as she sinks deeper into this bizarre mystery, turning up unannounced at a family vigil for the missing Chantal. There, she gets publicly called out for putting her nose where it doesn’t belong. Plus, it contained the most vexing exchange on TV this year. When Dory goes to the police to report a sighting of the missing girl, the policeman is flippant and unhelpful. Before leaving, she says, “Why don’t you get back to shooting black teens, because that’s all you do.” Each episode is moreish, and it culminates in the funniest finale I saw this year. Nothing beat it.
At the cinema, bold indies took coming-of-age fare back to a simpler time when John Hughes was a dead cert at the box office. The Edge of Seventeen is heroic in its self-effacing bluntness and female POV of surviving high school blunders. King Jack’s take on bullying and alienation is unparalleled; Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is exactly that – a contemporary parable on swapping nudes and having orgies fuelled by boredom; Captain Fantastic adds a new twist on the loss of a loved one with a family who lives “off the grid”. And Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! is the closest thing to an external trigger for nostalgia widely available.
To go back to The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine loses her best friend when she starts dating her older brother. Meanwhile, she has to cope with a message she accidentally sends to her crush, asking him to “put your mouth on my…tits…” It’s refreshing, directed by a woman, and unafraid to get a bit uncomfortable with its audience. It’s possibly the antithesis to Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s sort-of sequel to 1979’s Dazed and Confused. Basically, it’s a bro-y love-in during the dog days of summer as a newly assembled college baseball team must capitalise on their free time before college starts. A few have taken issue with it not passing the Bechdel test, among other things, but if you acknowledge this as a straight male simply getting in touch with his sensitive side, you’ll most likely enjoy it. The banter is incredible, the music spot on and the costumes reflect the halcyon 80s with aplomb. I would also wager that this fairly closely matches a majority of Americans’ uni experience.
There were so many more incredible films that did a prime job of deconstructing what it is to grow up – Sing Street, The Violators, Being 17, Sparrows, Little Men, Kicks, Morris From America, Closet Monster, White Girl, The Fits. I could go on and still miss a worthy entry.
Anyone, at any age, appreciates when a TV show levels with them. We no longer crave a fictitious facade, we want a reflection of our experience. Something we can relate to. How a 20-minute episode probes our insecurities with disarming humour is beginning to resonate with audiences. Give me Ugly Big Truthers over Pretty Little Liars.
In recent years, films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Boyhood, Heaven Knows What and similar ilk have moved the coming-of-age genre – if we can call it a genre – forward. Hell, the most talked about show this year was about a group of kids cycling around town to rescue their friend from the Upside Down. What is happening is a paradigm shift where we’re excavating earlier decades (in this case, John Hughes’ 80s) and updating them with diverse roles, new points of view, and even funnier humour. It’s the making of something new again, and watching these shows instead of scrolling through Instagram, you can’t complain you lost out on 20 minutes of your life. Teens are different now, and our movies and TV shows about them are finally starting to reflect that.