Lila is a shy 14-year-old girl. While spending the summer vacations with her best friend and obsessing over her sexual adventures, Lila vows to have some of her own. However, the subject of her pursuits, a tough young gangster several years her senior, makes her life difficult and dark. The premise of Eliza Hittman’s “It Felt Like Love,” which opened last week, may resemble a glossy MTV coming-of-age story from afar — but it’s decidedly shorn of sentimentality and aimed squarely at adults.
Hitmann is not alone. The second volume of “Nymphomaniac,” Lars von Trier’s chronicle of a woman’s erotic life, comes out in theaters this week and analyzes the carnal exploits of his protagonist as she transitions from her youth to adulthood. With its rampant nudity and echoes of depression so prominent in the Danish enfant terrible’s previous films, “Nymphomaniac” practically seeks to disgust anyone in the same age bracket as its star, not unlike the impact of “It Felt Like Love.”
Recent times have seen a notable concentration of such titles. One only needs to rewind to just one year ago and think of James Franco, cornrows and metal teeth, with a quadruplet of starry-eyed young women. Remember “Look at my shit”?
With this refrain, Franco’s Alien in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” imprinted himself into our pop culture consciousness, and he hasn’t left it since. The tattooed and silver-toothed hip-hop gangster looms over the four young girls — out merely for fun and a reprieve from their boring lives — like a paterfamilias, and emblazons it with his presence. That Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, the icons of millions of teenage girls, embody these characters only exacerbates Alien’s terror and otherworldliness.
The film plays out like a lush fever dream, with cinematographer Benoit Debie’s neon-lit lens imparting a surreal glow to proceedings. The narrative resembles a slowly unravelling skein, as Douglas Crise’s editing loops scenes and dialogues while running amok with the story’s timeline. The filmmaking is exemplary, with some sequences — such as a robbery montage set to Britney Spears — ranked among the most talked about from last year.
However, beneath all this technical bravado lies a simple plot that speaks to a subculture pervasive among today’s youth. “Spring Breakers” is an alluring yet potent satire of teenage lust. Korine’s depiction of the booze, parties and bikinis is visually striking but so supremely off-putting that titillation is the last thing on most viewers’ mind while watching them. A slo-mo montage of a beach party that opens the film resurfaces at several points — if only in fragments — and when a moment from it turns up at the end, interspersed with the aftermath of a shootout, the director’s disdain at the ephemerality and hollowness of such “joy” is almost deafening.
Nevertheless, “Spring Breakers” is not devoid of any compassionate understanding of teen hardships. Just a few scenes in the first act convey with surgical precision the sheer claustrophobia and boredom of a small town. As a pair of the girls opt to go back one by one, they’re seen resting in fetal positions on the bus, bathed in natural colors that evoke a tranquil feel. Home may be mundane compared to Florida’s frenzied beaches, but at least it provides a sanctuary.
Korine was not the only director last year to put the youth under a microscope and satirize their naïve inclinations. Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” took off from a true story and brought into the limelight the perverse youth obsessions with celebrities. In the film’s standout sequence, Harris Savides’ camera watches from afar — as do we — while the amateur burglars go through Audrina Partridge’s house. The film’s position as a neutral observer couldn’t be clearer.
Pushing proceedings almost to the level of parody, Coppola showed just how much sharing achievements on social media, no matter how notorious, mattered to her protagonists. Her characters are defined not by who they are — there’s precious little there, sadly — but by what they want and whose images they hope to emulate. Emma Watson is a comic delight as the Ring’s notorious and most ambitious member, Nicki Moore. She subsumes herself inside this vacuous and delusional character; just the posture Watson adopts while texting stamps empirically her transformation into Moore. Paris Hilton would be proud.
Working on a more sincere plane, James Ponsoldt attempted to make a classical American teen movie with “The Spectacular Now.” These are themes that have cropped up in the coming-of-age genre since it began: the end of school days and the joy of living in the moment clashing with the terror of having no future plans. It takes only a slight acknowledgement of the transience of this period and a knowing bittersweet outlook to hone in on the spot with which all of us can connect.
These aren’t the only tropes writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber utilize, for “The Spectacular Now” is a story told via archetypes. Miles Teller’s Sutter Keely is The Popular Guy, the one who cannot pass an exam to save his life but has instead saved several lives around town. Shailene Woodley’s Aimee Finnecky is The Shy Girl, the one who is pretty and smart and funny but just needs to be a little more assertive. These archetypes mostly work; we are either Sutter Keely himself or know someone who is. This ready connection makes projecting oneself onto the plot easier; the film’s strengths are in the universal emotions and realism in every scene. When Sutter and Aimee have sex for the first time, it’s depicted with all the hesitation and awkwardness the event would entail in real life.
These three films were rated R, necessarily distancing them from the sugarcoating of young adult fiction — and yet they still blatantly address the demographic they portray. “Spring Breakers,” in fact, seemed determined to prank teens – lured to the movie by its stars — with the trials and tribulations through which it put its young cast.
The inclusion of sex, orgiastic portrayals of nudity and partying, shocking proximity to violence and tantalizing obsessions with celebrity in stories about today’s youth are especially apt when one considers the context of the world these characters inhabit.
The Millennial generation has, ex post facto, been the first one to grow up with the internet (and internet porn), reality television and hyperreal, ultraviolent video games. They have entered adulthood amidst a dizzying invasion of privacy and society by technology, and witnessed a global recession shake their world. Any film about these people that stultified these factors would be taking the easy way out.
More quality films and filmmakers choosing youngsters as their objects of study are always welcome. More films utilizing young characters as vessels for their stories and themes, without pandering to four-quadrant demographics, are especially welcome. Adolescents, with their numbers, cultural influences and future growth, act as incisive barometers for — and reflections of — the society to which they belong. Between their fascinations, aspirations, fears and norms, there’s precious few topics that can’t be covered and even fewer stories that can’t be told.