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The 11 Best Depictions of Youth in Indie Film

The 11 Best Depictions of Youth in Indie Film

Richard Linklater’s epic magnum opus “Boyhood” is being released in cinemas this week. The film, twelve years in the making, follows the development of a young boy from age six to eighteen. To cut a long story short, it’s kind of a big deal. As Eric Kohn wrote in our review, “the involving chronicle marks an unprecedented achievement in fictional storytelling.” In such spirits, we deemed it appropriate to think back over the years and list the most unique and authentic representations of youth in film. Here are eleven of the best indie depictions of young minds and the worlds they inhabit. Let us know your favorites in the comments. “Boyhood” opens July 11th.

“Afterschool” Dir. Antonio Campos (2008)

Antonio Campos brings a Cold War sense of paranoia and evil to a wealthy boarding school in this haunting portrayal of today’s youth. The protagonist, a troubled teenager named Robert (Ezra Miller), uses voyeurism to escape social alienation. While videotaping his school grounds with a digital camera, he happens upon a terrifying scene: two of the school’s prettiest and most popular girls have just overdosed in the hallway, and he’s the only witness as they seize to their deaths. The plot that follows is secondary to film’s strong tone, which captures the zeitgeist of our technology-ridden world and exposes its sinister underbelly. In the chilling style of Haneke, Campos infuses human interaction with latent violence. Every encounter, however seemingly banal, promises to have darker implications. Robert is every modern parent’s nightmare: using violent pornography to fill the void of his loneliness, he becomes increasingly estranged from what appears to be a vapid reality, demonstrating feeble attempts at empathy and human connection. It’s a poem of warning. (Emily Buder)

“À Ma Sœur!” Dir. Catherine Breillat (2001)

Breillat’s film “À Ma Sœur!” (“Fat Girl”) is a disturbing yet profound insight into female adolescence, conveying a deep understanding of certain mindsets and relations usually washed over and tragically misconstrued. It challenges conceptions of idealistic love and romance, grinding out a story of harsh truth. Vacationing on the French seaside, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and her older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida) are obsessed with the idea of sex and their virginities. Anaïs, twelve years old, overweight and an “intellectual,” says, “The first time should be with nobody,” while her sister, though promiscuous, wants to save herself for someone who loves her. Their volatile relationship centers the film, which loosely focuses on their first sexual experiences; neither sister is able to separate herself from the undying, inescapable attachment they share. Jealousy is abound. Scenes of Anaïs watching her sister intimately involved with men elicit strange revelatory reactions. Her silence and quiet misunderstanding paints an inherent naivety that isn’t ever vocalized. The world around her has failed and nothing can really be done to set things right. This is also articulated quite clearly in the film’s shocking ending, which might agitate and upset some. Breillat’s brilliant film builds a tone of repression and menace that is finally released in random violent acts, showing all to be facile and just twisted conceptions built up through false fairy tales. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Central do Brasil” Dir. Walter Salles (1988)

“Central do Brasil” (“Central Station”) is one of Walter Salles’ greatest cinematic achievements. Winner of an Independent Spirit Award, a Golden Globe and a Golden Bear, the film is simple and poetic. Written by Marcos Bernstein and João Emanuel Carneiro (from a story by Salles), the narrative involves Dora, a jaded former school teacher and letter writer for the illiterate, and one of her customers, Josué, a poor nine-year-old boy whose single mother is killed in a bus accident in one of the opening scenes. Josué is then taken in by Dora, who plans a road trip to Northeast Brazil to find his father. The road movie that follows is a mix-matched collection of tidbits and red herrings. The most important element in the film is the human foundation: the performances of Fernanda Montenegro and Vinícius de Oliveira. Amazingly, ten-year-old Vincius was cast from the streets; Salles met him while the boy was shining shoes. As Roger Ebert wrote, “the performance is transparent.” (Oliver MacMahon)

Kids” Dir. Larry Clark (1995)

Larry Clark’s film “Kids” perfectly captured a generation. Written by Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers,” “Gummo”), it depicts a day in the life of a group of sexually active, drug enthused teenagers in mid-90s New York. The opening scenes set things up: A seventeen-year-old boy, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), convinces a thirteen-year-old girl to have sex for the first time. He then leaves, discussing why he “loves virgins” with his friend Casper (Justin Pierce), graphically describing his experience and how he knew “she’d just entered puberty.” At the end of the film–STDs shared and hearts broken–Casper looks up the camera (breaking the fourth wall) and says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?” His words ring true and bring the entire film together, which features scene upon scene of sex, drugs and violence. Clark’s film shows the collapse of our youth, their departure into hedonistic indulgence and mindless destruction. He humanizes it though, refusing mock representation, showing us the thought and feeling behind all the lost drifting in the chaos of an unchecked modern world. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Ma Vie En Rose” Dir. Alain Berliner (1997)

“Ma Vie En Rose” (“My Life In Pink”) is an extraordinary portrait of the Fabre family and their young son Ludovic, who struggles with gender identity, wishing that he might be able to live as a girl. It beautifully illustrates the fragility and innocence of youth, and sensitively examines the complex dynamic of duress that may develop in this state. In the elegant words of the father Pierre, “People are shit.” In the film, Ludovic struggles with being misunderstood by the general public and his family, who attempt to force acceptance into his way of being. They tell him that he must be who they say he his, that he is “too old to dress up as a girl.” His impressionable mind is therefore forced to internalize these moral judgements as his own. This only brings pain and confusion to his psyche, forcing him into a dream-state that Berliner’s touches of magical realism perfectly illuminate. The film won both the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and the Crystal Globe Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Ratcatcher” Dir. Lynne Ramsay (1999)

The hallmark of a great coming-of-age film is its ability to speak the unique language of childhood. Lynne Ramsay, arguably one of the most important female indie filmmakers today, crafts the film in this language entirely. “Ratcatcher” follows twelve-year-old Joshua as he comes of age in the poorest slums of ’70s Glasgow. As children, we view the world through a largely symbolic lens; we fill our gaps in understanding with a poetic, metaphorical framework. Ramsay translates this into potent symbolic imagery onscreen, and we’re taken on a journey into Joshua’s world as he navigates very adult themes—death, guilt, sex, extreme poverty, injustice—with the imaginative expressionism of a child. The film is thus able to move between beauty and squalor with a rare kind of fluidity. Raw performances illuminate a gritty, harsh reality as “Ratcatcher” reminds us to be grateful if we’ve been lucky enough to experience a tender childhood. (Emily Buder)

“Salaam Bombay!” Dir. Mira Nair (1998)

Camera d’Or winner “Salaam Bombay” was esteemed Hindi director Mira Nair’s (“Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”) first film. A multi-layered masterpiece, it mirrors the daily lives of children on the streets of Mumbai, conveying a haunting image of their reality. Shot on location, the narrative emerged out of Nair and co-writer Sooni Taraporevala interviewing a group of these children about their individual experiences, traveling through the train stations, bazaars and red-light districts they called home. Nair said in an interview with The Guardian that what inspired her to make the film was “the fact that the kids had no sense of pity for who they were. They were this and they were, by god, going to live it fully.” The film, in action, is almost like a documentary, informing us of these lives and truths so easily unnoticed. It’s simple and honest, and one must humbly watch, witness and try to understand. The protagonist, eleven-year-old Chaipau (Shafiq Syed), is relatively normal: he yearns for more, falls down, and falls in love. Abandoned by his family, he is drawn to the “city of dreams” to work odd jobs to make ends meet. There he becomes one of thousands of faces that emerge and soon disappear in the dark and damp roads of the most populous city in India, a pale fading memory of their happenings left only to linger for a moment. Nair, however, doesn’t treat him as such. She celebrates life, showing each example, each perspective, and each moment as special. (Oliver MacMahon)

The Spectacular Now” Dir. James Ponsoldt (2013)

James Ponsoldt’s film “The Spectacular Now,” adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel of the same name, is a coming-of-age story unlike many others. As Eric Kohn wrote in our review, the film “achieves an intimacy with its protagonists that’s nearly radical compared with the mainstream industry standard.” Ponsoldt shows us something reminiscent of an actual person, not a “character,” and we learn from their mistakes and triumphs. Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, the film premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. It revolves around charming yet self-destructive goofball Sutter Keely (Teller), a high school senior with a drinking problem. You probably won’t like him initially, but slowly you come to grasp the truth in his decisions (big and small). You’ll see yourself in him–the good and the bad–and truly connect. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Sweet Sixteen” Dir. Ken Loach (2002)

“Sweet Sixteen” is a bleak film, full of bitter sadness and anger. Directed by the iconic Ken Loach (“Kes,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”) the crime drama tells the story of fifteen-year-old Scot Liam (Martin Compston), an unemployed, uneducated ned in Port Glasgow, endeavoring to fund a fresh start for him and his incarcerated mother. The world around him though isn’t exactly nurturing. He is constantly pulled back to a default position of danger, drugs and despair, powerless to escape the clutches of the past and his preordained socioeconomic disposition, no matter how sunny his outlook may be. Basically, things will always go from bad to worse for Liam. Loach’s film is a brilliant example of stark, gritty realism and is true to the downtrodden lives of many youths. He in no way intends to sugar coat things or wrap them up in some overly zealous grand narrative. The fatalistic prison exhibited is meant to confront and shake you to the core. It demands that things change. In celebrating this breath-taking work, special mention must also be given to Compston, a local boy who was discovered in a high school audition. His inexperience lends refreshing honesty to the film. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Tomboy” Dir. Celine Sciamma (2011)

Celine Sciamma’s (“Water Lilies,” “Girlhood”) astonishing sophomore film is pretty much the inverse of “Ma Vie En Rose,” recounting the tall tale of an androgynous ten-year-old girl named Laure (Zoé Héra) who tries to convince those around her that she is a boy. Having just moved into a new neighborhood, she introduces herself as Mikaël, “the new boy in the apartment,” and gets away with it. The charade doesn’t last long and her deceit only intensifies the backlash she inevitably receives. The community casts her into isolation, denoting her behavior as “disgusting.” There are sparks of future possibility in the young romance Mikaël forms with Lisa (Jeanne Disson). What makes this film great is Sciamma’s delicate minimalist storytelling that gives itself time to settle into a near pitch-perfect rhythm and tone so that it can properly garner our sympathies when exploring the mind-set of this confused little girl and the real injustice that she suffers. The film draws us nostalgically back to our own childhoods, capturing a feeling of dreamy summer days and whimsical play – truly a time where we all, in some way, felt the need to search out our individual paths. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” Dir. Todd Solondz (1995)

Todd Solondz understands people. He gets that deep down we all have an ugly side, a desperate, irrational self that just wants. In “Welcome to Dollhouse,” the director, responsible for films such as “Happiness,” “Storytelling” and “Palindromes,” reveals this notion and more by delving into the mind of eleven-and-a-half year old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a shy 7th grader, hated because, as one boy tells her, she’s “ugly.” It’s a weird and wonderful experience to watch, full of moments to make you laugh, cringe, and remember those ill-gotten times in the cafeteria. Ultimately, though, it is true to life and hits upon some universal ideas. Without being too heady and sociologically inclined, it clearly dramatizes the conundrum children face coming into knowledge, frightened and ignorant of the unknown but for some reason desperate to be a part of it. In one scene, for example, Dawn makes a date with one of her bullies, Brandon (Brendan Sexton), so that he can “rape” her. They talk legalizing marijuana, being “a cunt,” and mentally challenged siblings. They then share an awkward kiss. It’s unusual, to say the least, and displays the odd attention to detail Solondz is now known for. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” deservedly won the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and is sure to strike a chord with even the most “normal” of people. (Oliver MacMahon)

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