Coming Of Age At Any Age

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It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment we leave our childhood behind and become adults. For most of us the transition is gradual, involving experiences and milestones that shape our personality and the attitudes we present to the world. Others may be faced with particular circumstances or moments that leave such a powerful impact that their innocence is lost for good, and their perspective on life irreversibly changed. Many of the feature films in competition to be nominated for the 2019 AACTA Awards explore this notion of ‘Coming of Age’ though protagonists of diverse ages and backgrounds, demonstrating how becoming an adult is rarely a simple experience.

Graduation, either from high school or university, marks a major shift in a person’s life as they move on from the structured experience of education and enter the adult world. Jeremy Cumpston’s BILCHED offers an unglamorous but particularly realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager in these moments, lended additional credibility through a script written by lead actor Hal Cumpston while he was still eighteen. The young students swear, drink, masturbate, and make mistakes as only teenagers can, making the most of their time before they have to mature. One of the final conversations between two main characters, after they finally confess their feelings to each other, nicely summarises the teenage attitude: “Where do we go from here?” “I dunno. We’ll figure it out.”

The friends in Imogen McCluskey’s SUBURBAN WILDLIFE face a similar uncertainty after graduating university, with one week left before a member of their group leaves the country. Louise (Hannah Lehmann) is known as the ‘Mum’ of the group for how she often looks after the others, and her willingness to embrace the next stage of her life by moving to London is contrasted with her friends’ inability to take responsibility for themselves or grapple with their emotions towards each other. The spontaneous road trip she organises for them offers one last opportunity to be kids, or “kids with a driver’s licence and a house in the country”, before they have to leave their childhood, and each other, behind.

The characters in BILCHED and SUBURBAN WILDLIFE are able to draw out their transition into adulthood, enjoying themselves with indulgent and celebratory last hurrahs. The young protagonists from Rodd Rathjen’s BUOYANCY and Samuel Van Grinsven’s SEQUIN IN A BLUE ROOM are not so lucky, as their attempts to break into the adult world take them down dark and overwhelming paths that rob them of their innocence.

Fourteen-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) tries to break free from his family and start a new life in Thailand, only to be sold to a Thai fishing trawler in BOUYANCY’s all-too-real tale of the modern slavery occurring in South East Asia’s fishing industry. After he is forced to participate in the murder of another slave Chakra is mockingly told by his captors that he’s “a man now”, starting a change within him as he grows more violent and aggressive in order to survive.

Sixteen-year-old Sequin, from Samuel Van Grinsven’s queer-thriller, claims to be eighteen on hook-up apps as he engages in casual affairs with older men while keeping himself emotionally unavailable. When he develops genuine feelings for a man at an anonymous sex-party, Sequin’s immaturity prevents him from knowing how to handle his desires. Delving deeper into the world of digital relationships, Sequin’s anonymity and safety starts being threatened by adults who would take advantage of his youth. While Sequin is able to move on from his ordeal through finding a supportive friend and getting into a healthy relationship at the end, Chakra is unable to face his family once he returns home and ends the film alone with an uncertain future.

Even through the post-apocalyptic setting of I AM MOTHER director Grant Sputore offers a sci-fi twist on how young people can struggle to gain their independence from parental figures. Clara Rugaard’scharacter, known only as ‘Daughter’, starts to question what she’s been taught about the world by her robotic caretaker ‘Mother’ as she begins to disobey the rules she’s lived under her whole life. Daughter’s first independent act, attempting to go out into the supposedly poisonous outside world, starts a sequence of events that pushes Daughter to challenge her caregiver’s influence and develop her own adult understanding and perspective.

The transition from childhood to adulthood can take many forms, and can occur at any age. This narrative potential, as well as the inherent drama of leaving behind a part of one’s life, makes the ‘Coming of Age’ story particularly appealing to filmmakers. These stories gain additional poignancy for newer directors moving into feature films as they begin the next stage of their careers, and indeed every one of the five films explored above marks a feature debut for their directors. We never really stop growing, and will always connect to stories that remind us of where we’ve come from and what may lie ahead.

Angus Attwood recently graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Masters Degree in Film and Television, and has previously contributed articles to the "Big Issue" magazine, online journal "Peephole", and the VCA Digital Archive.


To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.

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