Coming of age movies are some of the easiest films for us moviegoers to identify with. Growing up is a natural part of our human development, and thus watching young characters we love discover more about themselves, whether it’s The Sandlot, Call Me by Your Name or Dazed and Confused, is always very fulfilling. Yet, if you’ve seen enough coming of age flicks, you’ll have spotted that a surprising number of them take place in the summertime, or at least are partially set in summer.
Examples are limitless: the opening of Grease is set in summer, and much of the story is driven by what happened to two characters over the last summer. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom details a benign romance between two twelve year olds who run away from their summer camp together, causing much chaos. Even High School Musical 2 is awkwardly titled for it all takes place over summer. Hell, the first song is the students celebrating summer’s arrival. On first glance this may simply seem to be a case of a clichéd backdrop serving a particular genre, but there is actually a lot of benefits that can be gleaned from the summer setting. They create compelling themes, and offer insightful advice to the viewer.
A tremendous case study for this comes in the form of Stand By Me, one of the best coming of age movies ever made. An adaptation from Stephen King’s short story, The Body, the film depicts a group of four boys, all entering their teens, who decide to hike into the woods to find the body of a missing kid in their village. Following the railway tracks where the kid was last spotted, they hope to claim the reward for his finding. As bizarre as the premise is however, it serves purely as a means to an end. The film is ultimately about friendships, and how they develop or diminish. Our main character Gordy finds a kindred spirit in his best friend Chris, and through each other they learn how similar they are despite enormously different backgrounds. They both have ambitious aspirations that seem to be getting denied by the circumstances around them, and together the boys learn the painful truth of life’s unfairness, striving to overcome their own personal hindrances. Their attempt to find the body can even be seen as a metaphor of them trying to defy or defeat the impossible, that being the unfairness of life. It’s a powerful theme, and with the way the film eventually resolves, one can see how these characters evolve and come of age.
But why is the summer setting so crucial in this circumstance? It’s because the characters have to learn their own lessons through experience. Summer isn’t constrained by the limits of a schoolyard setting, and so it gives the characters the chance to hang out with who they want, and learn important lessons for themselves rather than have them imposed on them by an authority figure.
Education is undeniably important, and we’ve had plenty of great coming of age films in high school settings that offer deep themes or buoyant entertainment, recent examples being Raw, A Silent Voice, and The Edge of Seventeen. However, there’s only so much academia can teach you, with virtually all of it being theory. In many coming of age films, the characters have to put their personalities and knowledge into practice, learning life lessons that school doesn’t necessarily teach you. This contributes to their growth as people, and thus shows us how we can grow too.
The summer setting in Stand By Me helps to empathise this immensely, and most summer based coming of age films seem to follow this principle. Super 8 and The Sandlot also teach us the merits of friendship, while Moonrise Kingdom and Call Me by Your Name dwell in the concepts of first love and their highs and lows. These are things that we can be told about, but through the main characters actively experiencing such things over summer time, it not only gives them the place and time to reflect, experiment, and ultimately flourish, but allows us to see and understand the process. As such, the choice of a summer setting becomes as wholesome as it is wise.
Coming of age movies continue to be a popular genre choice for filmmakers and moviegoers alike, and for good reason. They can not only entertain us, but also teach us vital lessons that we can apply to our own lives. The summer setting allows our protagonist to evolve while in a free environment, allowing them to take their own time to learn about life, themselves or others in a way that can personally resonate with audiences. No wonder it’s such a popular choice for this wonderful genre.
[Calum Cooper – @calumthefilmguy]