The coming-of-age genre is nothing new to Oscar season. From recent best picture nominees “Juno” and “An Education” to classics such as “Dead Poets Society” or “American Graffiti,” the universal truths discovered in those years between teenager and young adult have enthralled audiences and Academy members for most of its history. This year has brought a number of acclaimed new entries into the coming of age pantheon, including Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name.”
Set in Sacramento in 2002, “Lady Bird” follows the title character (Saoirse Ronan) though her senior year of high school as she navigates young love and a desire to attend college in New York City, a proposition her mother (Laurie Metcalf) doesn’t see as a realistic goal.
“Someone’s coming of age is someone else’s letting go and I always wanted the movie to be just as focused on the letting go,” Gerwig says. “Because, to me, that is where the love lies and even though it’s a comedy and it’s funny and it’s light, it’s also got this central ache in it. That comes from the fact that someone is being pulled away from someone who loved them and raised them and what that dynamic is.”
Gerwig wanted to embrace elements of the genre while also flipping a number of its traditional narratives in what is her solo feature directorial debut after sharing the honor with Joe Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends.”
“Coming-of-age stories about boys are generally movies about a personhood,” Gerwig says. “And I feel that there are very few coming-of-age stories about young women where personhood is at stake. I sort of wanted to start from a premise of not denying the serious passion of teenage love, but starting with an idea of ‘Well, what if there were two guys and they’re both wrong and the love story’s really with the mother?’ I felt like I wanted to subvert the cliché of there being the one guy all underlined, because I feel like that diminishes what young women are and what young women can be and the value that we place on their own identity.”
Guadagnino’s masterful “Call Me by Your Name” also plays with audience expectations. Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel, “Call Me” was adapted by James Ivory, Walter Fasano and Guadagnino. The novelist’s hypnotic spin on the genre’s trappings made the summer romance in the Italian countryside between young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) so compelling to Guadagnino.
“Three-quarters of the book was Elio coming of age,” Ivory says. “That was the story, as far as I was concerned. That was the interesting story. And after he’d come of age, when he’s older and wiser, that to me wasn’t so interesting. And, of course, the book is a first-person narrative kind of thing. I mean, we’re getting Elio’s point of view as the older man on his actions and feelings and thoughts when he was a teenager.”
One of the joys of both “Lady Bird” and “Call Me” is how they capture the euphoric passion and nervousness of that first, true love, or what someone thinks might be their first love. For Ivory, there was one scene in particular in the novel that he thought was key in capturing that sort of moment: At one point the two men bike into town for a trip to the post office and it’s the first time Elio conveys to Oliver his feelings for him.
“I thought that was very well written and a very good scene with a lot of power,” Ivory says. “And I wanted to make sure that was there in the film, of course, and pretty much as described in the book.”
Ivory directed and co-wrote another landmark gay film, 1987’s “Maurice,” which focused on a long romance between two college age men at the turn of the 20th century, but 30 years later he can marvel at how unique “Call Me” is to both genres.
“There’s so many coming-of-age stories,” Ivory says. “Usually, they can be about all sorts of problems that kids have and how they solve them, but I’ve never seen [anything like this] in any other film.”