100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Young Adult, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

10) Breaking Away (1979), directed by Peter Yates

It’s funny, but the first time I watched Breaking Away I thought I wasn’t awfully invested in the movie. But then the Italians came to town and purposefully crashed Dave’s (Dennis Christopher) bike when he made it clear he was going to try to keep pace with them. And then Dave’s father, Ray (Paul Dooley) admits that even though he was a part of building Indiana University in Bloomington, he’s always felt like a second-class citizen compared with the college folks who swarm the town. And then Dave almost singlehandedly wins the Little 500 cycling race against a bunch of college teams wearing CUTTERS on his shirt. In those moments I was alternately infuriated, moved, and exhilarated. Breaking Away creeps up on you like an ambitious teenage cyclist chasing a tractor trailer; you know it’s there and you know what it’s doing, but when it makes its move it’s still amazing and recklessly charming.

Dave’s friends – Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) – are not noteworthy in and of themselves. There are scenes devoted to Mike’s squelched pride stemming from his resentment of the college kids who rub his inferiority in his face. There are scenes devoted to Moocher, who quits a job in fabulous style and…gets hitched? Cyril gets less time as his own man than anyone else in the group of four, but he’s more frequently at Dave’s side. This is not much to Cyril’s advantage, seeing as he gets beaten up by some college kids who mistake him for Dave, but if he didn’t want to be a sidekick then he should have been less weird-looking. The movie spends more of its quality time with Dave and his parents than it does with Dave and his friends, even though the friends probably eat up more screen time. It’s a good choice. Dave’s friends aren’t trying to make him change one way or another. Dave’s dad is constantly scolding his son to do something productive and to tone down the Italian worship. (Even the cat can’t escape. His name is Fellini, which is all well and good until he gets writer’s block during production of a science-fiction movie.)  When it looks like Dave will do just that, we know it won’t last for long – this movie couldn’t not end with the Little 500 – but it’s still a dour moment in a film that has its share of capers and fisticuffs.

The movie has a contemporary setting, and it’s one which adds to the film intelligently. In the late ’70s, one has to wonder if it’s worth it to go to college if one has no real professional career ambitions; the alternatives are not promising for cutters like our young heroes, who have no real path to steady employment if they stay in Bloomington. (Even if they left, what good would that do them?) It’s just as well for the four of them to laze on the rocks at the swimming hole which used to be the quarry that anchored the city economy. Dave has a leg up on just about everyone, even if his dad can’t see it. The fact that he has a passion, a quality shared by no other person in the film, means he was never going to be hopeless. He’s not growing up on the same schedule as everyone else, but the last ten minutes of the movie prove his ability to catch up.

9) Stand by Me (1986), directed by Rob Reiner

Stephen King is as frequently used for movie adaptations as any other author in America, partly because of his gift for episodes. Novels like It and The Stand resonate because their incredible length necessitates a narrative broken into digestible pieces. Done well, that’s a marvelous accomplishment over like, 1,300 pages. His novellas and short stories also have a gift for those episodes, even if there’s less space for them. Ironically, I think that’s why novels like Cujo or Christine are just fine but nothing special; there’s too much plot and not enough vignette. Stand by Me, based on his novella “The Body,” is a movie which bounces from little scene to little scene, all loosely tied together with a vague plot. The film sends the boy on a journey and makes them men who will travel. Stand by Me is corny as heck, leaning into the late ’50s nostalgia that is another hallmark of King’s best work, but I’ve never minded it too much. Castle Rock, Oregon is Americana in a neat package, and the adventurous, thoughtless spirit of four reject kids is the bow on top.

Two elements of the movie always stand out to me, especially in terms of this movie as a coming-of-age story. First is the reaction of the boys once they actually find the body of the unfortunate Ray Brower. For a group which sat around the night before debating cherry Pez, wondering about Goofy’s taxonomy, and telling a revenge fantasy about a vomiting wonder nicknamed “Lardass,” they are surprisingly solemn in the presence of a dead kid. At one point Gordie (Wil Wheaton) suggested that maybe a trip to find a dead kid shouldn’t be a “party,” but that on its own doesn’t account for the awestruck sobriety of the bunch. “The kid wasn’t sleeping,” grown-up Gordie recalls in voiceover. “The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.” Ray Brower is not gruesome, so far as corpses go. His skin is discolored and he’s got blood on his forehead, nose, temple, ear. He’s making a face. But he’s not disgusting – he’s simply deceased. Each boy’s face is put into perspective as he looks at the dead body; even Vern (Jerry O’Connell) doesn’t quite make it to revulsion. Something between acceptance and pity works on Chris’ (River Phoenix) and Teddy’s (Corey Feldman) faces. But this is a movie about Gordie growing up more than it is about anyone else’s maturation, and only he makes it to that very adult question: “Why did you have to die?”

He’s the one who was primed for it, which goes back to the second element that works. It seems like Denny (John Cusack) should be a character as cliched as many of the other types swirling around the film. He’s the perfect son, the golden boy, the favorite at home, and the only one who really cared about Gordie even before Denny bit the dust in a jeep. He’s used sparingly, only seen in a couple scenes, and even those are fairly short; his status on the periphery, receding into the past, makes him more than just a name but less than a real human being. Cusack, still a few years away from stardom, has the right aspect for it even in 1986 (when he was thirty…this is going to be a trend). His scenes with Wheaton are genuinely warm in a way that none of the other scenes in the movie are. Chris, Gordie, Teddy, and Vern are boys; even when they are kind and tender with each other, it’s always bound to revert back to the teasing, gentle or otherwise, that boys are socialized into believing is affection. Denny kids Gordie a little about a Yankees hat (it’ll be lucky for fishing, he says), but it’s at no one’s expense. Everything else in Stand by Me certainly has to be paid for by one boy or another.

8) Mean Girls (2004), directed by Mark Waters

Teen movies frequently intertwine themselves with the concerns of white bourgeois teens, and although Mean Girls is set among the rich kids living in suburbs of Chicago, it’s got a fairly universal perspective of American high schools. If Northshore were Us Weekly, Damian (Daniel Franzese) says conspiratorially, they would always be on the cover. It’s only become more so since the advent of social media; for many students school is an avenue for a certain flavor of fame. The mystique has dissipated a little bit because you can count how many people follow your Instagram; the lure of an aptly named Regina George (Rachel McAdams) is not so easily calculated, and thus is more precious.

Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) tells Cady (Lindsay Lohan), with the same sort of conspiratorial tone that Damian used earlier, that they don’t usually let people sit with them at lunch. Regina is the undisputed queen bee of the entire high school, partly because she understands what Gretchen won’t understand and what Karen (Amanda Seyfried) might be too dumb to understand: when you purvey fame, you chip it away from yourself. Regina is a brilliant autocrat who manipulates her courtiers and hangers-on with the gloved fist of a Louis XIV. She manipulates Cady, Gretchen, and Karen with three—way calls. She lays down arbitrary rules (“on Wednesdays we wear pink,” “that vest was disgusting,” etc.) and relies on Gretchen to enforce them. Janis (Lizzy Caplan) cuts holes out for Regina’s breasts in one of her shirts during her campaign to destroy Regina’s grip. Seeing that her bra is poking through, Regina raises her eyebrows appreciatively and struts out of the locker room: every girl in school (except Janis and Cady) has mutilated her shirt in imitation of the empress’ new clothes.

Part of the appeal of Mean Girls is how slim the exaggeration is on multiple fronts. For all the operatic heights that Janis, Damian, and Cady ascend to in an effort to sabotage Regina’s reign, there’s a real-life grounding in the adults. Cady’s parents (Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) are played up as slightly more clueless than the average pair because they homeschooled their daughter in Africa, but every parent is as befuddled and hurt by their teenager at some point as the Herons are. Regina’s mom (Amy Poehler) is that all too common type of parent who is too busy being her daughter’s best friend to be of any use to her. Before cringe humor was a nationwide epidemic, Mean Girls used it like a sledgehammer. Poehler dances in a bad but not bad enough to be funny recreation of her daughter’s skimpy Santa dance at the Christmas talent show. (It’s also a very clear juxtaposition of Regina’s home life against Cady’s. While Regina’s mom dances while camcording, Cady’s dad is equal parts horrified and offended by what his daughter is doing.) The faculty of Northshore High are as well-meaning and impotent as most of our principals and teachers are in the face of the bad extracurricular decisions that high schoolers make. Miss Norbury (Tina Fey) may be a “pusher,” which many great teachers are, and at the same time that quality makes her a subject of some ridicule. Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows), aside from having the second-best line of dialogue in the movie (“Oh hell no, I did not leave the South Side for this!”), has his heart in the right place but cannot predict what his students will do from moment to moment.

At its best, Mean Girls is devilishly funny, and like any good high school movie with a cult following even its smallest players are rewarded again and again by viewers. Glen Coco, Shane Oman, Coach Carr, Trang Pak and Sun Jun Dinh, those other home-schooled kids, and most of all Kevin Gnapoor – each of them has some glorious quotable moment in the sun before retiring back into obscurity. That humor is tied up with a skeezy fact (ah, yes, Jason is here too) about high school students that Mean Girls never forgets. Belonging is everything, even for the good boys and girls. Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett) is about as perfect a high school boy as there is, but he falls into the trap of being with the hottest, most popular girl he can find. Cady makes her first friends by skipping class, and then dumps them when she starts to like being Plastic more than being merely amiable. The end of the movie is a utopian but perfectly adequate one; Northshore has, thanks to Cady’s crown-o-clasting performance at the Spring Fling, become a place where people are more accepting of one another. Regina falls in with jocks, Gretchen learns Korean?, Kevin and Janis find a genuinely bizarre love together; Mean Girls is glad enough to say it’s completed a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, knowing we’ll not check their work for completion.

7) The Fox and the Hound (1981), directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens

Since I was in high school, I’ve thought The Fox and the Hound could go toe-to-toe with any other animated movie made by Disney or Pixar; if it had been made ten to twelve years later, I think we’d remember it as an out-and-out classic rather than a lonely entry in Disney’s perfectly adequate but inconsistent 1980s. There’s more to it than the “best of Friends” sequence, as cute as it is, and there’s more to it than the scene where the widow leaves Tod alone in the rain, which we’re not going to talk about now or maybe ever again. The Fox and the Hound is, in its bones, a moving story about how an adult with enough malice in his heart can poison the lives of innocent members of the next generation. At the end of the movie, even after Copper and Tod have swapped life-saving feats of bravery, the two of them cannot recreate the idyllic joy they took from one another. Voiceovers affirm the old best-friend status, but what does that really mean? Copper has been acclimated to the lifestyle of a hunting dog by his master, Amos Slade, while Tod has been assimilated into the forest by Vixie, his mate. How long will it be before Vixie is shot dead, like Tod’s own mother, by some other hunter with a shotgun and a lust for blood?

Coming-of-age movies have an unspoken contract with audiences. They don’t necessarily have to end happily, but we do expect a certain upbeat tone. The Fox and the Hound has brought its characters up from infancy into that unsympathetic world of early adulthood, and while we aren’t left empty we do feel the ache. It’s not terrible to see Tod “married off” and Copper dozing in the sun with his old buddy Chief, but these are distant seconds to the ear-tugging and rolling and laughing of the early going. They are close up to us as little varmints and shot from some remote vantage point as adults. Part of growing up is growing apart, which is hinted at in Breaking Away and said more bluntly in Stand by Me. But few movies force us to confront how painful it is to be pried apart from the people we love again and again. It’s what pushes Tod to maturity, certainly; the whole movie seems to be an exercise in tormenting him in new, fascinating ways. And yet growing apart doesn’t mean forgetting, either. Copper comes to Tod’s rescue at the end of the movie as Tod, totally spent from fighting a bear and going over a waterfall (after having previously escaped traps, fire, two dogs, a hunter with a gun…it was a bad afternoon), collapses in the shallow water. Amos Slade, whom we view from the business end of the shotgun he’s holding, means to do Tod in while he’s down. Copper stands over Tod’s body, refusing to move until Amos finally gives in to his dog’s stubbornness. Copper is decent enough to remember that Tod is a kindred spirit, if irredeemable to Copper’s businesslike sensitivities. The movie does not answer our last question, the one which is essential to any reading of Tod and Copper: does Copper save Tod because it’s the right thing to do, or because he still loves him?

6) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), directed by John Hughes

The scene where Cam (Alan Ruck, who, yeah, was pushing thirty) and Sloane (Mia Sara) have been ushered away from Ferris’ float (which it wasn’t before but certainly is now) and walk together is so unusual in the larger sweep of the movie; it’s just about the only time Cam and Sloane are alone together. Cameron confesses to Sloane that he’s not sure what he wants to do. He assumes he’ll go to college but has no idea what he’s interested in. Ferris (Matthew Broderick), he says, will be a fry cook on Venus. Sloane’s last lines of this movie are, “He’s gonna marry me.” In my view, it is more likely that Ferris became an interplanetary chef than Sloane’s husband. You can do the former without hitting twenty-one. Just as the stroke of midnight must return Cinderella’s carriage to its original pumpkin form, so too would reaching that numerical marker of adulthood ruin Ferris. Whether or not he’d marry Sloane isn’t a question of how much he cares for her or what kind of life they’d have together; it’s a question of whether or not Ferris Bueller could ever get to a point where he’d need to start shaving or learn what “tax returns” are without combusting.

A few moments earlier in that same scene, Cameron ruefully tells Sloane that he’s unable to manage anything, where Ferris seems to have a gift for working out anything he wants to. Only that same day Ferris managed to con dean of students Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) into believing Ferris was genuinely ill while getting Sloane out of school; Ferris managed to convince the snootiest man in Chicago that he was that city’s sausage king, Abe Frohman; Ferris managed to browbeat Cam into letting him take Cam’s father’s precious Ferrari out and about. (What the garage attendant, played by Richard Edson, does with that car is folded in with one of the great audio cues in recent movie history.) Ferris is also babied indecently by his doting parents. He’s a phenomenally successful child, as many rich white high school dudes are, but they could have made Arrested Development about future him.

The more we all watch this movie as a culture, the more it becomes a referendum on Cam, who is much more like all of us than any of us are like Ferris or even Sloane. We all play it safe because we know we’ll get caught, just like Cam knows he will be; Ferris knows he’ll never be caught (and even if he is, someone will bail him out.) Cam’s first scenes in this movie are probably the funniest ones for him. “When Cameron was in Egypt’s land,” he sings mournfully from his sickbed, “let my Cameron go.” The scene where he gets into his car and mutters “I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go…” like Leonardo DiCaprio talks about blueprints or the Way of the Future is hysterical. The end of the movie, where he famously sends his dad’s precious convertible to a two-story drop, is papered over a little by Ferris’ wild run back home. To me, Cameron deciding that he’s going to accept the “heat” he’ll get from his dad for the busted car is the most sincere moment in any John Hughes film. The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles can be nasty and ugly, and not in the neato-cool way. (Next time you hear the “You know what I got for Christmas this year?” monologue, blow a raspberry at it for me.) The reason Cameron’s newfound maturity, his sudden desire for responsibility, is so moving is because he has a perfect way out. All he’d have to do is blame Ferris, and Ferris has said he’s willing to take the blame for his friend. “He hates me anyway,” Ferris says, referring to Cameron’s dad. But Cameron turns him down. For good or bad, he’s going to find out if it’s true he can’t handle anything. More power to him.

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