The coming-of-age tale is such a commonly explored story in both literature and film, that the stories themselves are often seen as necessary tent-poles to one’s own coming of age. In the artistic manual of adolescence, one should start with a personal viewing of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and then transition to a well-worn copy of JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” While you may come out with a sailor’s mouth and an unnecessary societal chip on your shoulder, there’s something comforting and therapeutic for a young man in hearing how other boys stumble their way through adulthood. Last year’s Boyhood illustrated that there is still energy and interest in this familiar story. At this year’s New York Film Festival, two very different French filmmakers take on the genre, neither attempts a radical rethink to the coming-of-age tale but despite producing two unique films they both serve as love-letters to the genre at large.
Michel Gondry, whose career high “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” inspired countless film school application essays, has had an unpredictable career since. He has made small, personal documentaries, studio superhero mega-tales, and Technicolor romances, all to varying degrees of success (or varying degrees of failure depending on your Gondry temperament). His trademark visual inventiveness can at times upstage his storytelling, but he’s found the right fit with “Microbe and Gasoline.” He seems uniquely at home in a tween boy’s point of view, a statement that some directors would take offense to but his imagination perfectly highlights the misfit teens adventure road-trip in a way few others could.
The film follows Daniel, nicknamed Microbe for his pint-size, who is drowning at home with his over protective but checked out liberal parents. He befriends Theo, nicked Gasoline for his grease-smear smell, who is an eccentric showman who comes from a more blue-color family. The two bond while building a make-shift RV, preparing for adventure by running-away from home. A more true-to-life tale would have the two bonding online over their mutual moody blogs, but thankfully Gondry has a more tactile sense of teen angst.
The greater part of the film concerns their road-trip in the scrappy RV, which has a distinctly Gondrylike visual appeal with its transformative pullies and levers. It’s during this trip that we see the film is not about teenage alienation or really rebellion, but about the power of a best friend during your formative years. Daniel and Theo are mismatched on paper, which is precisely why they are the perfect friendship duo. Theo being months or maybe a year older—and a few inches taller—means that he possesses a great wisdom that Daniel constantly seeks. Both are prone to elicit mood swings out of the other that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cassevettes marriage film. The drama of the fights is equal to the ease at which they forget and quickly move on to another adventure. While the film has no shortage of Gondry like visual whimsy, the real magic he captures is that to a teen grappling with the drama of budding adulthood, everything means nothing and nothing means everything. Daniel and Theo may not have put a lot of thought into the route or even destination of their trip but they put a lot of thought into doing it together, which ultimately is what makes the trip a success.
A French filmmaker of a different ilk, Arnaud Desplechin similarly feels in perfect form exploring another element of youth. In “My Golden Years,” Desplechin reintroduces the characters of his 1996 film “My Sex Life…of How I Got Into an Argument,” although here we see the lovers Paul Dédalus and Esther at the very beginning of their romance. The film is loosely told in three chapters, all in flashback and all concerning the beginnings of Paul’s life. The third chapter is by far the longest and, like young Paul, is enraptured with Esther. Despite the title and general sense of heart within the film, Paul’s youth is not of a polished golden hue, its rife with uncertainty and obstacles.
Paul is constantly in the state of transience, splitting his time between his family home in the country where his sister, cousins and friends laze around when they’re not throwing house parties. They’re still very much attached to the French pacifier—a cigarette—but are eager to either realize or fulfill a life outside of the city, which Paul is doing by beginning his anthropology studies.
What chiefly brings Paul back is the alluring Esther, whose manipulation and disinterest in people is no match for Paul’s easy intellectual charm. Their romance is chronicled in breathless, wordy letters (again, thankful for a general lack of internet communication within these films), just one of the tools Desplechin (who also co-wrote) uses to convey the ridiculous sense of high stakes that come with a first love. The seesawing between pining and reunion tears at Paul and Esther keeping their love at a constant rolling boil. If young love is the first battle we all have to overcome, Desplechin reminds us that even without a clear winner or loser its still the most worthwhile war. The poetic dialogue combined with the performances drawn out of newcomers Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet create a portrait of first love that’s enveloping, sexy, dramatic and at times hyperbolic, aka everything we hope for from a first love.
For every fantastic coming-of-age film there are ten forgettable ones, thankfully both “Microbe and Gasoline” and “My Golden Days” fall in the former category. Given the overabundance of the genre (particularly from the white male perspective), standing out within it is no simple task. How Gondry and Desplechin arrive at something special is by finding the genuine feeling that accompanies those transformative relationships of boyhood but telling them in their own unique voice. The subject matter is universal, so it’s necessary to bring out the personal. It’s yet to be determined whether or not the films will fall into the required viewing category in the coming of age canon, but they do provide a nice reminder that boyhood is still terrain worth revisiting.