I’m going to talk about being a teenager. Obviously at 34 years old I’m in a prime position to talk about being a teenager.
Two things have brought this line of thinking to mind – a book and a few movies. I like fiction with teenagers at the heart of it. Teenagers make for really interesting characters; there’s a definite line you can score right through the centre of them to explore who they are, in a way you can’t do with adult characters. There are peaks and troughs you can follow that in any other demographic might seem over the top or melodramatic – highs and lows that define who they are as they struggle to find who they are.
This year’s Power Rangers movie works because it’s about the Rangers being teenagers.
Morphing becomes a very thinly veiled allegory for coming of age, yes — “Have any of you morphed before?” “I have, but only in the shower…” — but that’s the logical theme to choose. That’s the hook that Power Rangers bases its entire story around, one that relies on building the characters as relatable, identifiable teenagers who all need a way to focus their feeling on being angry or adrift. It takes a classic teenage trope and expands on it; anyone watching it relates to that feeling, that memory, that universal recognition.
We were all teenagers once and the best fiction about teenagers uses that to help an audience relate to and identify with its characters. The worst fiction about teenagers forgets that and creates archetypes or caricatures, whereas something that uses teenage characters should be using them, teenagers specifically, for a reason – in the case of Power Rangers, it’s the phase they’re at in their lives, the crossroads they stand on. Their change into heroes helps negate the very real possibility of a descent into something much less attractive and satisfying…a thing that all five of those main characters fear.
But the thing I’ve been thinking about, that started with watching Power Rangers (again) last weekend, is…the fact that the characters are teenagers isn’t something that should ever get in the way of identifying with the characters.
Yes, we were all teenagers once, but I don’t think it’s limited to that. The feelings that can so easily be epitomised by teenage characters — anger, misdirection, uncertainty, alienation, untarnished hope, unfathomable sorrow — aren’t unique to the teenage phase or psyche. You don’t just rely on the memory of them to identify with them. It’s a popular myth that those feelings go away as you grow up, but they never do – you might find solace for them or ways to cope with them, but you won’t ever shake them. Their intensity, once your hormones settle down and you learn some stuff about Living, might not seem quite so life and death, but their effect remains throughout your adult life.
Fiction involving teenagers is, for adults, largely cathartic. It allows you to feel those things with the safety off.
There’s a book I read recently, Been Here All Along by Sandy Hall, that I can only describe in those exact terms – it allowed me to feel things I haven’t felt in that intense a way in a long time…with the safety off. It’s wonderfully written – not least because it flows effortlessly and is just so easy to eat up, but because the characters are so true.
I was describing the story to a friend, how it heads towards all the genre tropes you would expect…but how it also never does the expected, dramatic, engineered thing when it gets there. It does the logical, honest thing instead. The characters make some bad decisions, but no one is a bad person; awkward moments and perilous plot turns abound, but they resolve themselves in a realistic way. It makes the identification with it much stronger – it doesn’t feel like made-up people or situations, it feels genuine. True.
There was also an element of wish fulfilment in it, for me. Teenage boy falls for male best friend whilst male best friend falls for teenage boy?
Lived that. Well, half of it. The strength of how it spoke to me, in that regard, is likely down to me and my personal experience but, on the other hand, it wouldn’t have spoken to me quite so strongly if it hadn’t felt quite so identifiable. It only felt that way at all because I believed more and more in the characters and in the way the story unfolded.
I bought what Sandy Hall was selling, because I believed in what she was showing me, through these kids and their intense emotions and hangups and fears and doubts. It’s a wonderful book for a gay kid to be able to pick up and read, not only to give them confidence in themselves and hope for their love life, but also for some brilliant escapism from only living half the life it illustrates. My reaction to it was part sadness, part exhilaration but total identification. With a crowd of kids half my age.
That strength of identification came back to me, again, when I watched The Edge of Seventeen, again, on Saturday night.
That’s the first time I’ve watched it since adoring it at the cinema and my love for it only intensified when knowing what to expect. The wonderful thing about that particular foregrounding of a teenage character is how it brilliantly centres Nadine as a reliable narrative voice when, in reality, she’s anything but reliable. She is, without doubt, one of the most fundamentally simple and yet thoroughly complex teenage characters in any movie, ever – The Edge of Seventeen manages to encapsulate in a movie that feeling of lost self-involvement that every teenager has felt at some point. It builds a world defined by Nadine’s view of being the only person alive with problems that matter; of being constantly misunderstood and mislabelled; of everything being everyone else’s fault whilst she lies helpless at the centre of it all.
Everything builds to a wonderfully understated finale that proves, with heart-rending poignancy, exactly what you’ve suspected all along – that Nadine is a victim of herself.
Herself and her choices, fuelled only by confusion and uncertainty. Again, can’t we all relate to that? It’s a universal feeling, but one best exemplified by a teenage character. Nadine can get away with it because of the age she is, because of the position she is in at that point in her life. Beyond the confines of the teenage years, that character becomes unbearable and narcissistic – within the confines of adolescence she’s far more relatable, her woes far more understandable and her entire story far more sympathetic. It holds its emotional water because it isn’t really her fault. She doesn’t know who she is yet. She’s clinging onto a time when she was happiest whilst everyone around her tries to move forwards; she can’t see that she’s holding herself and those she loves back, as opposed to her view that everyone else around her is simply a total asshole, out to get her.
I really, really like teenage characters done well.
They have a fire in them that’s largely pure. They are the dramatic elements in fiction that I enjoy reading, watching and writing about the most – the contradictions and the highest highs and lowest lows, with free license to feel them as intensely and as sporadically as they damn well choose. There is an obvious benefit to a teenage audience for that, but the thing that interests me more is the benefit there is to the adult audience who might otherwise not feel engaged with a teen movie or a teen character. Exercising the ability to emote on that level again, to identify strongly with that kind of emotion and fragility, in the (relatively safe) knowledge that you’ve been at that point, you’ve done that and survived that…
…but you remember exactly what it’s like. Because it’s always there, inside you, tempered by time and age and experience.
I guess all our clocks stopped in many ways at seventeen…and it’s nice to be able to go back and remember when that clock stopped, and how it felt.
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