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'Young Adult' and Other Films Prove Our Generation Doesn't Want to Grow Up

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Dec 09, 2011 | 8:50am EST

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Charlize Theron Young AdultSometime over the course of the last year and change, I began to notice a trend in movies—more accurately, regarding my reactions to the developing movies I was hearing about. I’d catch wind of a concept or theme that someone was trying to bring to the big screen, and would, with escalating frequency, say, “Damn it! I just had an idea like that!” It’s a phenomenon with which we’re all familiar. And for writers, it can be frustrating.

So what was the rationale behind this outbreak of films ripped straight from my secret ideas journal? Certainly a government conspiracy to keep me from the revolution-inspiring success I’d otherwise inevitably achieve, I thought*. But my eventual realization was much simpler, and more emotionally healthy: people are starting to make the movies I’d make because the people who are now making movies are, for the first time ever, around the same age as I am. And that’s when I had to admit the most horrifying truth for someone in my generation to accept: I am an adult now.

A preoccupation with, and fear of, aging is quite prevalent among today’s twenty-, and some early thirty-, somethings. It is sweeping the lot of us leaving college, starting families, or entering the workforce—and within that last collection, it is adamantly attaching itself to the aspiring filmmakers of today. Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron and opens in theaters this week, is a great example, the very epitome of suspended adolescence. And Young Adult is one of many in-development projects by contemporary filmmakers themed around, be it analytically or vicariously, this obsession with the dichotomy between youth and adulthood. The trend began shortly before last year’s Happy Madison debacle Grown Ups, and continues through developing movies like Ten Year, American Reunion, I Melt with You, Jeff Who Lives at Home and the aforementioned Jason Reitman-directed Young Adult. It's the degree of this passion, bordering on pandemic, that feels specific to our time.

In our recent interview with Young Adult writer Diablo Cody on her creation of the new film, the screenwriter admitted to a concern that she was channeling youthful characters—like the heroines of her movies Jennifer’s Body and the wildly popular Juno—as a vicarious attachment to her own younger days. Cody illustrated the conception of Young Adult as both an attempt at a more mature story as well as an inspection of this very attachment to youth (albeit, in a more villainous way than the incredibly wonderful Diablo Cody could ever represent in real life).

Said Cody in the interview:

“I was constantly being asked why I write about teenagers. And I never knew how to answer the question. Then I started to think about it, and I was like, ‘What if I’m actually just living vicariously through these young characters, because I can’t mature? What if I’m just stunted?’… But I was inspired. I thought, ‘What if I really am just a messed up woman-child?’ And then, of course, I eased up on myself. I thought, ‘What if there was a character that was a young adult novelist who truly was immature to a really extreme degree and just desperate to relive her glory days? And goes to extreme lengths to make that happen?’ And I thought, ‘I like this character. I haven’t seen this character before. Let’s go with this.’”

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Whereas Young Adult addresses the issue with a promise of honesty, some other films made to date or in the works are breaching the subject in a different fashion. You can sense, when watching Grown Ups—starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, Rob Schneider and David Spade as a fivesome of childhood placed friends back in their old vacation spot to live out “one last” extended weekend as they did in youth, and to teach their families how to do the same—that the writers of the movie were channeling their own heartfelt nostalgia.

Seeming to borrow a bit from both the embrace of nostalgia and the maturity of authenticity might be the upcoming Channing Tatum-led, Ten Year. You can feel, from watching clips from the film, the evocation of a genuine angst over an ever distancing past, as if the retrieval of such would be the sublime. I do eagerly await the release of Ten Year, excited to be educated on a walk of life of which I myself am in the early stages. And although I presented these as a contrast to the more biting introspection of Cody’s Young Adult, there is certainly a value in stories like these, as well as in the simple fact that they are being written. It is human to long for the “good old days,” and even more human to rerun them in our minds to be far more “good” than they ever really were. Any movie that admits this, and deals with it in some genuine way, is a valuable example of a major component of what it is to be a young adult in the present.

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Good writers, successful writers, real writers (not the writers who just write about having their ideas stolen by real writers) write what they know. They write what they feel; what represents them, both as individuals and as members of a greater phenomenon. People write about their times. Our generation, sometimes called the Information Age, sometimes called the Snowflake Generation, often called a bunch of hipsters, has had some discontinuity with its identity. We’re the ones who have seen advancements in technology nearly Jetson-ian. We’re consistently and rapidly, turning our world into the future we’d like to see. All the while, we’re also a generation affixed on the past. We've brought back Converse shoes, we’re remaking The Munsters, and the Sixties” is a common answer to the hypothetical question, “During which time period would you most like to have lived?” Our generation is one that, as a whole, struggles and plays with its identity. As do its members, individually. So it’s natural for us to fear the concretia of adulthood. Adulthood suggests self-acceptance, it suggests deliberation, it suggests having some clear-cut idea of what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment. And as such, it’s natural for our writers to write about it.

I am confident that, when studied by future readers and filmgoers, a movie of this genus—one about the plight of a Gen-Yer (worst moniker ever) to deal with the loss of his or her childhood—will be the iconic representation of our time. As Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream and Holden Caulfield’s hypocritical rejection of all things superficial were for those before us, Young Adult and its kind might very well be looked upon as “what our generation was all about,” for better or worse.

*I only kind of thought that.

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