no. 2: The Magical Allure of a Bildungsroman

in which I proselytize the cinematic perfection that is Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and introduce official Screen Break correspondent Kati Bowden

no. 2: The Magical Allure of a Bildungsroman

There’s a special flavor of nostalgia that I’m after whenever I watch Perks of Being a Wallflower. Something about it feels so familiar—and not just because I may or may not have watched it once a month in high school. It’s that fleeting feeling of adolescence that draws me in, making me wish that I was back in the classroom at seventeen when every moment was a huge philosophical reckoning on who I was and what I wanted. There’s something charming about watching teenagers figure themselves out on screen, muddling through a world that is full of both cruelty and love.

Main cast of Perks of Being a Wallflower including Charlie (Logan Lerman), Sam (Emma Watson), and Patrick (Ezra Miller)

Traditionally, the genre—bildungsroman—deals with a boy’s transition into manhood as he overcomes some great challenges. This narrow definition was readily expanded and now includes iconic favorites like Pretty in Pink and 10 Things I Hate About You. No matter what, though, the teenagers in these films have to navigate the tenuous space between adolescence and adulthood. When coming-of-age films succeed, they’re fully immersed in the teenage experience, not just a public perception of adolescent culture. Failures tend to look like that leaked Powerpuff Girls script, full of TikTok buzzwords lacking any context and devoid of meaningful connections between characters. In the best coming-of-age films, teenagers are people in their own right, allowed the space to independently grapple with what it means to be human.

As a teenager, I also had to come to terms with my own existence; I constructed myself out of my emotions and the things I liked. Perks of Being a Wallflower (the book) by Stephen Chbosky had been one of those “things I liked,” acting as a cornerstone for my understanding of how I fit into the world. When news of a film adaptation broke, I followed the it closely. I watched the trailer the day it was released, eyes glued to my phone screen as “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons blared through its tinny speakers. When it was released in theaters, a friend and I saw it in theaters on opening night. For me, Perks of Being a Wallflower accessed a known truth of humanity, one that I felt in my heart—we all just want to be loved and accepted.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) standing in the bed of a pick-up truck.

Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) growth from the beginning of the film to the end resonated with how I perceived my own high school experience—always an outsider, always misunderstood. As Charlie moves through the film, he learns what it means to be a friend and how to handle the hard stuff. He realizes the beauty of being alive and that his existence is important and meaningful. It may be cliche now, but Charlie saying “and in this moment, I swear we are infinite” is the same feeling I chased in my formative years. I wrote the quote on the mirror in my teenage bedroom, seventeen-year-old me knowing that someone out there understood what it was like to be a teenager.

I still find myself drawn to these movies, reliving my own coming-of-age on screen and wishing I could go back to that time when everything seemed so large and expansive and emotional and mine. Sometimes I think it's why when I ask my parents some of their favorite movies, they rattle off some teen flicks from when they were a teenager for the same reason I always list Perks and Booksmart and Edge of Seventeen—it’s true to their experience. Coming-of-age films help us make our own steps into adulthood and remind us of our ever-growing selves.

Looking for more?

I asked friends and followers for their favorite coming-of-age films.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It’s a classic and it has something for everybody.”
— Dakota

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants because four very different but support girls who are best friends. Books are good, too.” — Shania

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is “good and gay.” — Kaleigh

“Ladybird or Uncle Frank, [but] I also love Big with Tom Hanks.” —Kara

Taylor recommends Stand By Me.

Mark your calendar!

Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) in a still from Sex Education
Asa Butterfield (Otis) and Ncuti Gatwas (Eric) play best friends in Sex Education.

The date has been set for season 3 of Netflix’s Sex Education, which may be one of the best coming-of-age TV shows I have seen (besides Freaks and Geeks). Season 1 was delightfully cute and season 2 brought multiple unlikely pairings to the forefront. The show is never afraid to hit hard topics and approaches every situation with a balance of humor and true-to-life drama. This is definitely one of my most-anticipated fall TV releases.

If you haven’t watched it already, seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix. Season 3 will be released September 17.


Screen Break

…with official correspondent Kati Bowden (@pothos.and.pathos on Instagram). She’s bookish on Insta and unhinged on Twitter.

Screen Break is getting a new look! Kati Bowden, bookstagrammer and library assistant, will be giving us some screen break recommendations in every issue because we all need a break from blue light every once in a while.

This week's theme is "coming of age," and we're pairing it with escapism. We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul is the story of a perfectly beautiful, perfectly docile, perfectly boring star of Hopuonk, Massachusetts. Taylor Garland is homecoming queen, fated to marry a football player, have his babies, and waste away in the same small town she was born in until she dies. But Taylor hates Hopuonk. Taylor hates pretending to be vapid and happy. And Taylor hates not being honest about the feelings she has for her best friend, Susan. So Taylor decides to get out before it's too late.

On the weirder end of the spectrum, Katrina Leno's You Must Not Miss builds its own magical, terrible escape. Magpie's life fell apart when her father ruined everything, her sister skipped town, and her mother started drinking again. Now Magpie's got nothing, except for the world she writes about in her yellow notebook, a world named Near. Magpie imagines Near so fully, so lovingly, that she writes it into existence. At first, Near is a pleasant escape, a version of the world where nothing went wrong and everything is still perfect and on track, but things quickly get dark as the world twists itself into a nightmare. But Magpie sees the potential in Near, and knows she can use the world to get anything she wants, including her revenge.

With themes of escapism, agency, and young women's anger, We Were Promised Spotlights and You Must Not Miss are revamped takes on the coming of age subgenre perfect for the angry kids, the trapped kids, the kids who need to know that there's something on the other side of what they know, and it's all theirs if they want it.