There comes a time when you age out of coming-of-age stories.
Reading a novel about a teenager or watching one learn about life on-screen, you find your middle-aged self growing restless. You either don’t care enough about the adolescent protagonist’s angst over their latest acne outbreak or just wish they’d grow the hell up already.
Consider "The Catcher in the Rye." If you didn't read J.D. Salinger’s book by the time you were in your early twenties, don’t bother. If you wait and attempt the novel as a mature adult, preppie Holden Caulfield and his whining will strike you as that of an irredeemably spoiled and sarcastic brat, rather than the musings of a misunderstood soul mate ("... if you want to know the truth").
That’s not always the case. Some coming-of-age books and movies transcend the genre. They figure out fresh and intriguing angles for their stories (think "Mean Girls" and the Harry Potter series, both on the page and on-screen) or are smart and realistic enough that you can’t help but be affected ("The Squid and the Whale").
Take three smaller movies out this summer that all deserve to be seen: “Fruitvale Station,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now.” All three feature young male protagonists — I know, I know, where are their female counterparts? — who are trying to figure out what’s important in life and the path they want to follow.
The best of the trio is "Fruitvale Station," a drama likely to figure in Top Tens and awards lists at the end of the year. It’s based on a real-life story, that of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man in the Bay Area who (spoiler alert!) was killed when a transit officer shot him dead in a law enforcement screw-up at a BART stop on New Year’s Day.
In the movie, Oscar is an affable young man who spends his last day on Earth — though he has no idea that’s what it is — taking baby steps toward turning his life around. An ex-con, he gets a jump on intended New Year’s resolutions by trying to improve his relationship with his girlfriend, caring for his young daughter, helping his mother (a lovely performance by “The Help’s” Octavia Spencer) and attempting to talk his way back into a job from which he was fired at a grocery store.
In other words, he’s decided that it’s time to be a grown-up and accept responsibility for his actions and his life. Oscar is trying hard to change, though it doesn’t always come easy. As Oscar, "Friday Night Lights" standout Michael B. Jordan is terrific, creating a full-rounded character who, by movie’s end, we’ve come to care for a great deal.
“The Way Way Back” is a warm, accessible comedy about 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is spending a summer at a beach community with his single mom (Toni Collette) and her blowhard of a new boyfriend (Steve Carell). Duncan ends up finding the wise father figure he so desperately needs in the wise-cracking manager (Sam Rockwell) of a local, down-at-its-heels water park where the teenager lands a job.
This gentle comedy breaks no new ground, but it views all of its characters affectionately, showing them as full-rounded people with both good points and flaws. And it perfectly captures that moment in early adolescence when you honestly and truly believe that no one has ever, not ever, been more miserable than you are and that life will never, not ever, get any better.
The final of this summer’s worthy coming-of-age indies is “The Spectacular Now.” It’s the story of cocky Sutter (Miles Teller), another teenage boy who’s being brought up by a single mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sutter is popular, drinks too much and takes almost nothing seriously. Much to his surprise, he finds himself falling for Aimee (the wondrous Shailene Woodley, from “The Descendants” and TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), a shy but smart girl who is most definitely not a member of the in-crowd at their high school.
Both of these young people have much to teach each other. Sutter helps Aimee learn to assert herself; she aids him in understanding that you can’t just skate by on the surface of life in an effort to avoid all emotional hurts.
All three films treat their protagonists as engaging fellows worthy of our sympathy and time, which they absolutely are. All three of these young men make mistakes, some of them attributable to their youth and some simply to who their characters are.
Each, though, is someone you’ll be glad you’ve gotten to know better — no matter his age or yours.