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Who are you?
On teenage romantic comedies, career quizzes, and the need for real guidance
It is a shame that the coming-of-age film is a genre so overstuffed with navel-gazing targeted at adults. A seemingly infinite number of minor variations on the same general themes of youthful shenanigans, social awkwardness, and romantic fumbling fill the vaults without many original ideas ever coming forth. Even when they take novel turns (as in "Boyhood", which was filmed with the same cast over a dozen years), the audience is rarely told how youthful choices result in adult outcomes -- and when they do, it's rarely for more than laughs (as in the freeze-frame epilogues in "Animal House").
■ Instead of trying to make adults feel good about how they weren't the only ones left dazed and confused by adolescence, our culture would be much better off communicating to young people that youth is merely the start of a lifelong process of self-discovery.
■ Well into adulthood, most people are still uncertain how to answer the deepest questions of self-identity. It's why the quarter-life crisis and the mid-life crisis are equally predictable sources of uncomfortable laughs of recognition.
■ But too many times, the neat resolutions required by cinema and novels communicate the idea that at some point or another, one finds all of the answers. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course -- but nobody tells you that when you're 13 or 14 years old.
■ It would do an enormous amount of good if youthful guidance could communicate to young people how to undertake the process of deciding who they want to be. The value is not in telling them the answers -- everyone is entitled by right of birth to follow that path for themselves. Human dignity demands it.
■ But it also demands that we don't isolate an education to just a few aspects of life. Figuring out a prospective occupational path with a career aptitude quiz and probing one's sexual self-identity are useful aspects of growing up, but they're hardly the whole thing. Much more needs to be explored, too: Forming an ethical framework, shaping a moral identity, and discovering one's tolerance for external motivation and intrinsic goal-setting matter, too.
■ So do quandaries like finding hobbies and other non-remunerative interests that balance work demands, and questions about what one does to pay the civic rent. We often touch briefly on these things -- for instance, rewarding community-service hours with cords at graduation -- but other than implicitly suggesting that volunteerism is a path to applause, civilization depends in part upon people figuring out why their contributions matter, and which ones they're best suited to give.
■ Some of this could be projected by delivering them interesting and introspective biographies and autobiographies, but rarely do those stories tell the most important part: How people came to their decisions. Lots of biographies and autobiographies present their important moments as faits accomplis, due to over-simplified causes like hard work or divine intervention.
■ The decision-making process is the hard part to figure out in life, and nobody gets it completely right. But we could do a better job of communicating some of the trial-and-error involved so as to reduce some of that error for future generations. Plenty of juvenile pratfalls will still happen, and they will always demand their places in film and literature. But it would do a world of good to make those stories looking backwards from adulthood into ones that young adults on their own quests for self-discovery would find more attractive as navigational aids for the times ahead.