Absurd Adolescents: The Coming of Age Tale Grows Up at TIFF 2017
The coming of age film is a genre as well known and overdone as any. These stories focus on the maturation of a young protagonist, often placing the viewer right inside the head of the subject and allowing us to view the world through their eyes. Because the genre has become so prevalent, directors hoping to create something fresh and unique must now take a different approach and try something new. Two films recently featured at the Toronto International Film Festival did just that, and although the techniques employed were very different, both resulted in unquestionably absurd depictions of adolescence that told their tales in unique ways and caused an audience to sit up and take notice.
Let’s start with an unlikely hero: Liam (Daniel Doheny) from director Kyle Rideout’s Public Schooled (2017), also starring Judy Greer and Siobhan Williams. Liam is a bright and likeable but awkward teen who has never been able to socialize properly due to his exceptionally overbearing mother Claire (Judy Greer)’s homeschooling and helicopter parenting. Although surprisingly well adjusted given the circumstances, it quickly becomes clear that Liam longs for friends and relationships other than those with his mother and grandmother. When taking the high school equivalency test, which he should easily “double ace,” he catches sight of a mysterious female student and deliberately flunks the test so he can enrol in public school and chase the girl of his dreams.
Visually and sonorously, this film is quite enjoyable. Brilliant Liam has a very active imaginative mind, as represented by the frequent shots of colourful galaxies and stars that are used to depict his mindset. Visually interesting moments are paired with a cool, upbeat soundtrack and bright colour-palette that point to a typical teenage film. There is a bit more to Public Schooled than one may originally anticipate upon first glance, however. To sum it up: this is one strange movie.
As a parent, Claire zooms right past overprotective and into the realm of just plain creepy. She refuses to allow her teenage son a door to his room or any friends his own age, and as the film progresses, she tries to introduce him to rebellion in increasingly strange ways, from smoking pot in the student parking lot to taking him to a college rager—and joining in the antics. Her consistent statements that she will be attending Cambridge with Liam cause nothing less than a shudder. Another aspect of this film that stuck me as odd was the humour. Frank and off colour sex jokes seemed jarring amidst all the cloying sweetness of the main pair; yes they got a laugh, but it often came behind a raised eyebrow, literal cringe, or head cocked in confusion.
The tonal discrepancies within this film led me to draw a conclusion that may be awarding too much credit, or may be entirely accurate: this film is satire. The overprotective mother has become an overused trope in the coming of age genre that Rideout has magnified into extremity, revealing the absurdity in this type of parenting. Do most homeschooling mothers treat their teenage sons in this way? Hopefully not to this degree of discomfort, but by refusing to grant any independence, well meaning parents can indeed do more harm than good, which Rideout points out in a coy, tongue-in-cheek manner.
Overall, Public Schooled is a different approach to the coming of age genre featuring a weird but likeable mom-and-son duo whose ridiculous levels of sweetness override any unsettling vulgarity. The humour is weirdly dark, but once one accepts the quirkiness of the film, it’s not difficult to just go along with it and have a good time. This premise has been so overdone that Rideout gives his version an absurd spin to allow it to stand out from the pack. The film seems smart, which leads me to believe that everything is being done on purpose, and a satirical take on the genre is the enjoyable result.
On the other end of the coming of age tale spectrum we have Good Favour (2017) from director Rebecca Daly. In this slow and quiet yet almost excruciatingly intense story, a teenage boy wanders out of the woods and into a devout Catholic village with no knowledge of who he is or memory of where he came from. After being welcomed into the community, everyday life begins to take a turn for the strange, and Tom (Vincent Romeo) gradually reveals what seem to be magical powers—or a religious potency.
In stark contrast to Public Schooled, Good Favour makes use of a dark, dull colour-palette. Instead of a poppy, millennial-pleasing soundtrack, we’re met with stark silences and prolonged absences of foreground sound where all one can hear is the rustle of a leaf or the drip of a tap in the background, which suddenly becomes intense and worthy of note. The camera often lingers on images past an audience’s general span of interest in them, causing us to wonder why the filmmaker found them important to highlight.
As far as framing, villagers can often be seen in the far background or corner of a shot, simply watching in silence, which is exactly what we as the viewer are doing as well. It becomes unsettling, however, when that gaze is directed towards us—not only are the characters constantly being watched, but we get the feeling that we are, as well. The film builds in intensity slowly, not by revealing anything overtly frightening, but instead by showing things slightly out of place that really shouldn’t be there and that make us uncomfortable for their presence.
Apart from the filmmaking techniques, narrative factors add up to create an overall sense of foreboding emanating from this work as well. Tones of religious extremism permeate the film, as a dying woman is refused care in hospice due to out-dated beliefs, and a traditional ceremony performed by children gets horrifically out of hand. There’s also the mystery surrounding Tom himself: Who is he? Where does he come from? Why are wounds suddenly appearing on his body? And does he actually boast the mystical qualities the village children claim he does? The film offers no clear answers, and the audience is constantly left guessing.
Both Public Schooled and Good Favour are coming of age films that take a unique approach to an overwrought genre. While Rideout chose to go the satirical route with his film, Daly went another direction entirely, crafting a slow, dark, haunting work. One aim of this genre is to align a viewer with the protagonist, and allow a glimpse at the world from their young point of view. A glaring difference between these two films is the level of charisma found in the protagonists; whereas Liam is overly bubbly, albeit awkward, Tom is almost entirely silent. He doesn’t do or say much, so when he does, we immediately take note; there is a magnetism to Tom’s mannerisms from which it is nearly impossible to look away. Neither of these two characters is overly easy to connect with, and Liam does seem easier to root for than does Tom. However, the latter’s intensity mesmerizes and creates, at least for this viewer, a much deeper emotional connection, and ultimately, a more rewarding film.