Risky and risqué, indie films have always been a home for bold, honest, and controversial visions of teens’ sexuality. Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” opening this week after bowing at Sundance in January, is another notch in the belt of the sub-genre, a sensitive and often shocking look inside the coming-of-age of a young Brooklyn teen.
Like the best of these films, it’s not all about hormones; it builds on questions about identity and desire. But that’s there too, in sensitively crafted scenes that don’t skimp on reality. Punctuated by some bad choices and an unnerving final act, “Beach Rats” embraces the full spectrum of teen sexuality, even when it’s not exactly alluring.
Here are eight indie films that engage with the subject matter in appropriately intimate ways.
“It Felt Like Love”
While “Beach Rats” isn’t an official sequel to Hittman’s previous film, “It Felt Like Love,” the filmmaker explores similar themes and structures and both, told from seemingly opposite vantage points. Set during another languorous Brooklyn summer, Hittman’s debut follows 14-year-old Lila (a fearless Gina Piersanti), awkwardly and constantly exposed to the sexual exploits of her older friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), who goes through boyfriends and experiences with the kind of ease that Lila can scarcely imagine. Lila’s desire to be, well, desirable, finds her fixating on a local boy Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) with a reputation, whom she doggedly pursues in hopes of striking up a relationship. Lila’s emotional immaturity constantly butts up against her deep physical desires, leading her into increasingly fraught situations she’s not equipped to handle. Like “Beach Rats,” Hittman slowly spoons out important revelations, but its the smallest details that hurt — and hit — the most.
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Abdellatif Kechiche’s rigorously erotic three-hour romance initially spawned Cannes walkouts before picking up the Palme d’Or, split three ways between Kechiche and his stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, proof of the level of dedication all three of them poured into a wild (read: maybe even nightmarish) shoot. While “Blue” earned big buzz because of the obvious — its long-form sex scenes, alternately hot and totally exhausting — that only obscures the finer points that Kechiche and his ladies put on the ill-fated romance between Adele and Emma. Hormonally speaking, it’s essential that the film opens when Exarchopoulos’ Adele is still slogging through high school, all burning desires and deep boredom, the perfect time for her to meet and fall obsessively in love with the slightly older Emma. There’s no love quite like the first, and while Adele’s awakening isn’t just about sex, but also her sexuality, that her most formative of experiences comes at the hands of another woman is simply one facet of a highly relatable love story. Sure, audiences may still flock to the film for its unbridled sex sequences, but there’s no scene more telling than Adele, stuffing her sauce-stained face full of spaghetti, bursting with new desires that have to be redirected somewhere.
“Turn Me On, Dammit!”
Awkward, horny teens eager for sexual satisfaction are hardly underrepresented in the entertainment world — hello, sex comedies — but films that center on teenage girls and their kinkiest desires are still outliers. Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Norwegian festival favorite doesn’t shy away from showing off just how gross, weird, and yes, horny as hell girls can be, too, all filtered through the experience of indomitable Alma (Helene Bergsholm). When the film opens, Alma’s sexual awakening is already chugging right along, though it’s about as tragically amusing as it gets, punctuated by routine calls to a phone sex line and a mother who just doesn’t get it. Alma’s life gets both worse and better when a popular peer pokes her with his penis at a casual gathering (romance!), and she refuses to let him live it down, alternately turned out and a little freaked out. Her isolation grows (turns out, high school kids are awful), but her libido won’t be tamed — a strange mix that adds up to a risky, funny feature topped off by some big truths.
Dee Rees’ lauded feature debut (based on her short of the same name) is a revelatory look inside the fraught coming-of-age of Brooklyn teen Alike (Adepero Oduye), as she conceals her sexual desires — and, in many ways, her entire identity — as outside forces push her to be honest about what she wants. That’s a hard enough concept for even the most well-adjusted of teens to face, but for Alike, trapped by a restrictive family and pushed to conceal everything from her wardrobe to her taste in music, it feels nearly impossible. Rees peppers in moments of Alike embracing her true feelings, brief flashes of freedom that hint at who she could be if she didn’t need to hide, but they also live alongside nerve-wracking reveals that drive home just how trapped she is. For Alike, her sexual awakening comes hand and hand with her personal growth, and neither will be the same by the film’s moving conclusion. She is not running, she is choosing.
David Wnendt’s 2013 German drama goes there. And also there, there, and there, right around there, over there, and down there. If there’s an orifice for leading lady Carla Juri to probe in pursuit of pleasure (and maybe even some pain), she’s going to do it. Possibly also with a vegetable. The most out-there, oh-wow coming-of-age story of the century, a movie that makes the pie-loving of “American Pie” look embarrassingly infantile and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” seem suitable for family consumption, “Wetlands” is a riot of sounds and sights that run the gamut between dreamy and nightmarish. But for all its gross-out humor, “Wetlands” also packs an emotional punch, all of it hinging on Juri’s wild-eyed work as the wholly unique Helen, on the cusp of the rest of her life (and super-horny for it).
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Marielle Heller’s 2015 Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is not your average coming-of-age story. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel 2002 “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures,” the film bravely and brazenly turns its taboo subject matter — the sexual awakening of a teenage girl — into a funny, smart, and honest story that entertains as much as it educates. Bel Powley stars as Minnie Goetze, a precocious 15-year-old muddling her way through the swinging scene of seventies-era San Francisco. Like many girls her age, Minnie is struggling to find her place in the world, a journey made all the more difficult by her seemingly unstoppable hormones. As Minnie taps into her burgeoning sexual desires, her life takes a turn — straight into the arms of Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), her mother’s boyfriend. Heller deftly navigates questions of consent and issues of age, and Minnie makes it clear that she’s making her own decisions, even if they’re probably bad ones.
“The Spectacular Now”
James Ponsoldt’s 2013 adaptation of the Tim Tharp novel of the same name (beautifully written for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) has often been hailed for its sensitive depiction of addiction and its fresh spin on the classic teen romance, but it also takes on sexual awakening in a moving way. Inexperienced Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is seemingly no match for the confident Sutter (Miles Teller), but when the pair fall into a hazy relationship, she bravely embraces the possibility that they could have something real. Inevitably, that includes Aimee losing her virginity to Sutter, in an achingly real sequence that sees Woodley assuming control and guiding the pair into one of the most relatable and emotional love scenes in recent memory. That it also handily deals with issues of consent and doesn’t try to be salacious just for the hell of it makes it even better, and further illustrates the different ways in which both Aimee and Sutter are coming into themselves, with sexuality as just one face of that maturation.
Tucked inside Julia Ducournau’s midnight movie, a visceral, challenging, and often jaw-dropping genre feature about cannibalism, is a tasty treat of a coming-of-age tale. The film follows a young student (Garance Marillier) who discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself (and the world) when she heads off to vet school (kind of the perfect setting for a body horror film), most of them centered on her evolving relationship with meat. All kinds of meat. Initially restrained and severely buttoned up, Marillier’s Justine eventually takes a bite out of her burgeoning desires when a weirdo school tradition activates her hunger in a myriad of ways. Ostensibly a horror movie with bite, Justine’s journey from vegetarian to meat-lover also mirrors her descent into the desire for other kinds of flesh. A parable and a straightforward chiller in one bloody package.