I was never much of a teenager. It’s not as if I wasn’t a student; it was that I was absent so much — literally away from Northbrook, at debate tournaments once or twice a month, over the weekends — that I never felt as if I was really a member of my community. After all, when you spend your weekends in San Francisco and Dallas and Washington, D.C., Northbrook just seems kind of lame.
That’s the story I’ll tell myself to explain my (perhaps purposefully) spotty memory of high school engagements. Oh sure, I hazily recall the two dances I attended, many of my high school a cappella group’s performances and I unfortunately remember the may weekends not spent at debate tournaments literally, but living vicariously through refreshing the debate wiki pages to see what teams were reading in rounds.
Between the travel, the social absentia and, to put it mildly, the social ineptitude, my high school years feel barely sketched in. There were classes and there was debate … and not much else. That’s where movies have helped.
I wasn’t much of a film-watcher in high school (coincidentally, I discovered Netflix streaming roughly a half hour after my last debate round ever), so much of my experience with the cinematic high school arrived post facto, a bit too late for any sort of groundbreaking behavioral adjustments. But these films helped not only fill in the gaps of my experience, but understand the struggles I faced and contextualize my high school years in the fabric of our collective cinematic projections.
That sounds like a load of gobbledygook, but hear me out. Films, especially those over the past ten years or so, have by measure been pretty kind to teenagers. That is, they seem truly respectful of their views and of their behaviors. No one in these films is perfect, but no one in life is. They have their faults, and so do we.
I watched “Superbad” in my junior year of college, expecting a raunchy romp but was delighted to find (on top of the aforementioned raunchy romp) a delicate tale of male friendship and separation anxiety. I don’t miss high school too much, but I miss my friends, I miss the evenings we spent driving down to Evanston or up to Highland Park for ice cream or barbeque. When the older students in choir and debate graduated, I missed them too, uncertain of what how our groups would fare without them. At the start of Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World,” Enid and Rebecca note how sad it is that they’ll never see one of their classmates again. It’s not as if they’re all friends or anything, but the notion that a person whom you spend every day with over 12 or 13 years will just disappear is quite sad.
Last year’s “The Edge of Seventeen” and this year’s “Lady Bird” tell similar stories from different perspectives. “The Edge of Seventeen” follows Nadine, who ignores the funny and nerdy Erwin while she crushes on Nick, the sort of moody and enigmatic “bad boy.” Meanwhile, Nadine quarrels with her mother, develops a sort of offspring-like relationship with one of her teachers, and drifts away from her brother and her friend, Krista, after the two start dating. “The Edge of Seventeen” contained for me many familiar beats of high school — especially Erwin, whom, to my pleasure, I saw as a stand-in for myself.
“Lady Bird,” which is playing in the Michigan Theater currently and is easily the best movie of the year as of yet, also tells a story of a high school student, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, whose relationship with her mother is the central focus of the film. Lady Bird’s mother is still trying to figure out parenting, and, in one telling scene, seems to avoid telling Lady Bird that she likes her. In school, Lady Bird discovers her love for theater and starts to date one boy (Danny … huh), then she turns to a more popular crush, Kyle, and drifts away from her friend, Julie.
Nadine and Lady Bird are both deeply flawed people. We may begin with sympathy at the start, but by the end, we start to side more with their mothers and friends. The films are comforting because they allow me to fill in the gaps of what I’ve missed in high school — “Lady Bird” especially is a wonderful distillation of senior year — and they let me know that, honestly, I may have been a terrible person then and, at this point, it may be better to just let go.
And yet, both are still uplifting and engender some perhaps misguided nostalgia for my days at Glenbrook North. That’s the power of movies: to stir emotions beyond the rational, to supplement our own lives with curated stories, often with a point, in the hopes of imparting some wisdom on our forever-malleable minds. I received the message.