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By Ben Larned · November 19, 2018
Why do we watch coming of age films? Why do we willingly put ourselves in the place of a teenager, revisit the influx of hormones and information and new social pressures that we barely survived the first time? Everyone probably has a different answer, but it points to the same thing: experiencing them in a fictional context can help us understand their reality. The anxiety and sensory overload of adolescence is hard to put in context, until it’s up on the screen. Elsie Fisher and Molly Ringwald, two teen icons from very different generations, came together under the A24 banner to figure out what makes their stories universal.
Whether you’re a YouTube vlogger with 3 views or an international pop sensation, a career in the arts naturally comes with anxiety. Even more so when you haven’t had a chance to form a sense of the world apart from that career. Both Fisher and Ringwald speak to the difficulty of acting as a child – between the school you miss and the jobs you don’t get, it kicks off a premature existential crisis. Ringwald’s eighth-grade experience was derailed by doing a movie, in fact; she missed the first month and lost the opportunity to make friends.
When someone is born with heightened anxiety, pursuing this career becomes even more of a challenge. Fisher specifically pointed this out, as she experienced first-hand the embarrassment that nerves can cause in an audition. She considered choosing a different path before she met Bo Burnham. Fisher’s anxiety was a benefit in this case, because the protagonist, Kayla, dealt with the same thing.
As both actors note, anxiety never really goes away – that’s why films like Sixteen Candles and Eighth Grade have universal power, even decades and generations apart. Burnham’s fanbase is mostly made up of teenagers, so his subject matter targets them. Even more importantly, however, Fisher and Ringwald are both “non-threatening” in appearance, as Ringwald herself notes. There’s a relatability to them, a recognition, that allows each actor to admire the others’ work – as an audience member rather than a peer.
It’s rather beautiful to listen to these two teen icons discover the similarities between each other. Ringwald notes that she wasn’t very political as a teenager, but has become so in adulthood; the Internet has inundated Fisher’s generation with these issues. Both actors refer to the importance of political education, even if much of this generation’s information comes from Twitter. The differences between peer groups are massive in some cases – Ringwald’s fellow teens had to learn to read maps, for instance, while Fisher never leaves the house without her phone.
But the commonalities speak to the importance of coming-of-age stories – as the technology and trappings change, the anxieties, personal confusions and worldly revelations remain the same. Ringwald has considered that Eighth Grade might be too intense for her own daughter, who’s now a freshman in high school; the anxieties might still be too raw. Fisher does note that, while doing Q&As for high schoolers around the country, the kids who would be Kayla’s peers related to it most. Though the film contains some deeply uncomfortable moments, Fisher believes that putting them on screen will open a genuine discussion amongst the people whom they affect most.
So we come back to the importance of film and pop culture, from John Hughes to Bo Burnham, Molly Ringwald to Elsie Fisher. Few of us would opt to experience middle or high school again, but by witnessing the nuanced and sensitive portrayals of their characters, we can gain perspective on our own lives. One person’s anxiety can become another’s catharsis. It’s all about how you show it, and how you make peace with it in the process.
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BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid
Photo credit: A24.