Teens on screen
The coming of age genre is experiencing a renaissance
The noteworthy moments in the films of Luca Guadagnino tend to involve dancing, food or sex. Tilda Swinton’s ecstatic reaction to a plate of prawns in I Am Love (2009) was surpassed by Timothée Chalamet masturbating with a peach in Call Me By Your Name (2017), but neither came close to Ralph Fiennes’ dad dancing to ‘Emotional Rescue’ in the otherwise senseless A Bigger Splash (2015). Balding beneath a scorching sun, a burgeoning middle age spread exposed, his performance was so wildly exuberant it was as though his character – the bothersome bon vivant Harry Hawkes – was a boy again. Youth is a recurring motif in Guadagnino’s films. “Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once,” the father tells his son Elio (Chalamet) in his adaptation of André Aciman’s gay rites-of-passage novel Call Me By Your Name. “And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.” In interviews Guadagnino’s younger self is cast as a shy voyeur witnessing the dancing years of his peers from the sidelines, before finding an outlet and ultimately a voice in cinema. It’s a relationship that began in infancy with Norman Bates dressing up as his dead mother, through Michele Placido as Superman (“I couldn’t take my eyes from the crotch”) to an image that, oddly, resonates with him in adulthood: a shirtless Jeff Bridges in Starman from 1984.
Despite the sumptuous look of his films, the director has declared he’s not pursuing “an instagram shot”, yet the rising generation that views life through that app contributed to the commercial success of Call Me By Your Name. Now he’s actively pursuing this demographic with the 8-part HBO series We Are Who We Are which airs in September. Written and directed by Guadagnino – his first outing since last year’s short film The Staggering Girl – the drama follows two young Americans coming of age on a U.S. military base in Italy. It’s a smart move as the teen genre is enjoying a renaissance, which began with Glee in 2009. The cast of Riverdale, an updated take on the Archie comics, includes the oldest actors to play teenagers since Henry Winkler turned up as Fonzie in Happy Days. The teenage suicide motif is covered in four seasons of 13 Reasons Why, while Euphoria takes the genre into a landscape so explicit it makes Elio Perlman ejaculating into a peach seem as innocuous as the hobbies of the Hardy Boys.
In the teen genre renaissance, parents, wider society, and the establishment are keen for teens to be exactly who they want to be
The young characters in Euphoria are subjected to addictions, abuse and sexual positions that would take a life time to experience. What’s left when they progress to becoming grown-ups or become graduates and regress into infancy, holed up in safe spaces? This is one of the arguments raised in a 2018 book by psychologist Jean M. Twenge, the catchy iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. “GenX’ers managed to lengthen adolescence beyond all previous limits,” she writes, “they started becoming adults earlier and finished becoming adults later”.
There are many races, faiths, sexualities and pronouns among the cast of Euphoria. In the trailers for We Are Who We Are the two lead characters are a peroxide blonde white boy and his obligatory brown-skinned sidekick. They are misunderstood, a theme central to teen melodrama since a Montague dated a Capulet. “They think we’re weird,” one laments. “Does that bother you?” the other asks. Increasingly the ancient theme of the young being thwarted by society or parents is less relevant. In these series parents, wider society, the establishment are keen for teens to be exactly who they want to be. They are who they are. What was once “weird” and sidelined in the margins is now the protected norm in the mainstream. Schools are breeding grounds for the new orthodoxy. But the baddies, like the high school staples of cheerleading and prom night, are relics from a bygone age of teen melodrama. They are straight, white, baseball-playing boys with Republican fathers who harbour the kind of secret the gay and trans kids they victimise embrace and celebrate.
This was not the experience of those cast as queer outsiders in the 1980s youth of Luca Guadagnino, or those of us that came of age in the 1970s. We kept our head down so it wouldn’t get kicked in. We neither defined ourselves nor defended ourselves. We were without the status of the boys confined by a masculinity far more ‘toxic’ than the current brand, yet we were quietly defiant, and without the need of safe spaces with soft toys. We harboured our own secret: these boys were everything we didn’t want to be and had no intention of becoming. But that was a time of three TV channels and a Top Ten, in which our major worries were getting spots or seeing Sparks slip down the charts. The current rising generation, according to studies carried out in recent years, are more stressed and depressed than their equivalent in previous decades. These reports, like the iGen book, highlight the impact on mental health of smartphones and social media. Twenge writes: “Wanting to feel safe all of the time can also lead to wanting to protect against emotional upset—the concern with ’emotional safety’ somewhat unique to iGen. That can include preventing bad experiences, sidestepping situations that might be uncomfortable, and avoiding people with ideas different from your own”. This dominates among those that have taken their adolescence into adulthood onto twitter and into the streets on marches. Once it was the young wanting to be treated like adults that was an issue for the older generation, now it’s their desire to be cosseted like children that confuses their elders.
Doubtless the extremes of Euphoria won’t feature in Luca Guadgnino’s new series, even though he covered similar ground in his film adaptation of the sex diary of a teenage girl in Melissa P (2005). Despite his references to crotch shots in interviews, the penis was conspicuous by its absence in Call Me By Your Name. The director has said he was keen to depict the emotional relationship between the young male lovers. Soon he will begin work on the sequel alongside another project in which the entire cast are children, a remake of Lord Of The Flies. An ample opportunity for one of his noteworthy cinematic moments involving food, when cannibalism comes close to being on the menu for a group of stranded adolescent boys.
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