Tag Archives: coming-of-age

The Vanished Empire (2008)

“Do you know how much Bulgakov is on the black market?”

The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya Imperiya) from director Karen Shakhnazarov was just released by Kino. Don’t get me started on the fact that most Russian films don’t even make it to distribution in America–so good for Kino for selecting this excellent title. I don’t know who picked this one for Kino, but they have a few Russian titles to their name and they’ve all been choice films.

The Vanished Empire is a coming-of-age drama set in Moscow of the 70s. It’s the twilight of the Soviet era, and things are changing, but not soon enough for the troubled young protagonist, 18-year-old student Sergei Narbekov (Aleksandr Lyapin). Sergei lives with his middle-aged divorced mother (Olga Tumajkina), his once-famous archeologist grandfather (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) and his younger brother. In many ways Sergei is a very typical teenager. He hasn’t yet worked out what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and he doesn’t really understand himself well. Now he’s landed in college, but he’s only got eyes for the other girls in the lecture rooms. Sergei coasts along, stealing books for his grandfather’s collection and selling them cheap to a Moscow book seller–no questions asked. The money Serge squeezes from these shady transactions is ploughed into Western goods–jeans and Stones and Pink Floyd records furtively bought from black market hustlers. His lack of interest in his college lectures is not political and his inattentiveness springs from boredom more than anything else. But Sergei is also directionless and subject to whims and impulses.

While Sergei’s mother worries about her son and the moral implications of his actions, Sergei’s tolerant grandfather’s attitude is different. He turns a blind eye to his grandson’s pilfering and when confronted with the proceeds, he appears to find pleasure in the fact that Sergei is getting some use from the mountains of books that crowd their tiny Moscow apartment. Meanwhile Sergei’s mother has worries of her own–she’s meeting a man on the sly.

Sergei hangs out with two friends, Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) andKostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) the privileged son of a diplomat, but these friendships are interrupted when Sergei meets Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), an attractive, sincere student. As Sergei stretches to impress Lyuda, there’s the implied sense that this relationship will affect him deeply. On one hand, Lyuda seems the sort of girl who may help stabilize Sergei’s somewhat morally fuzzy character, but on the other hand, will he be able to live up to her expectations?

There’s one scene when Sergei visit’s Lyuda’s apartment and he marvels at the books on the shelves. Lyuda’s mother offers to lend him a book, and he takes it away. Given that we’ve already seen him smuggle out his grandfather’s books and sell them in exchange for western trinkets, this scene subtly poses the question, what will Sergei do with the book? Is he taking the book simply to please Lyuda’s mother, or will he have it evaluated and sell it? It’s this sort of scene that makes this seemingly simple drama so intense. Sergei is making choices that will determine the outcome of the rest of his life, and unfortunately he doesn’t realize the stakes. At one point for example, after completely alienating Lyuda, he has one chance to win her back, and once again Sergei doesn’t really understand the choices he’s about to make….

While the film examines the turning points in Sergei’s life, it’s impossible to escape the film’s meta meaning. Sergei’s family unit is composed of three generations–a pre-revolutionary grandfather, his mother, a pure soviet woman, and Sergei, a young man on the brink of change. Those changes are of course mirrored by the changes about to sweep over the Soviet Union. The lectures on Soviet ideology no longer hold the students’ attention at the university, and even the attempts to stamp out black marketeers are tepid. There’s no energy left in the Soviet system; it’s effectively burned itself out.

The idea of lost civilisations is implicit throughout the film, and these scenes underscore the impermanence of life and the paradoxical desire of humans to leave some sort of monument to our existence.  At one point, for example, one of Sergei’s more intense teachers drags the class off to an excursion to the Black Sea to gather folklore before it disappears from view. This excavation of history is then continued when Sergei takes a journey to Khorezm, the City of the Winds, the meeting place of his parents. There standing in what constitutes the village square, he sees a statue of Marx, a long-lost relic of the Soviet Union. Can anyone in that village identify that statue? Do any of the villagers know who Marx is? Just as we see the dust and magnificent ruins of Khorezm that hint of a marvelous long vanished empire, we also witness the figurative ruins, the twilight of the Soviet Union: the disinterested youth who are bored by communist party history and who yearn for black market goods, and a long forgotten statue of Marx standing in a corner of what was the Khorezm Socialist Soviet Republic.

Touted as a coming-of-age tale, The Vanished Empire is ultimately a touching, affecting, and very accessible  film.

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Water Lilies (2007)

water liliesWater Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) is a French coming-of-age film that dabbles in the dark waters of budding female sexuality. The film takes a long time to warm up but the wait is well worth it. Plus there’s always the film’s gorgeous cinematography.

Set in the suburbs of Paris during long hot summer days, the film begins with various teams of girls preparing and then participating in synchronized swimming in a large public pool. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is there to watch her best friend Anne (Louise Blanchere) perform, but in reality, Marie moves her seat to get a better look at the striking Floriane (Adele Haenel).

Marie, who’s shrimp of a girl, idolizes Floriane, and it’s easy to see why. In the water, Floriane performs with grace and dexterity–out of the water, she’s not so pleasant. Blonde, tall and shapely, Floriane is loathed by her team members and has the reputation of being the team “slut.” Wherever she goes, males vie for Floriane’s attention, and most of her focus is on Francois (Warren Jacquin), a good-looking popular male swimmer. 

Marie begins to neglect her friendship with plump, unpopular Anne, and she tries to join a swimming team. But does she really want to swim or does she need an excuse to hang around Floriane? While Marie is discontent with her body, and even tries on a swimming suit on top of her clothing, Floriane is a study in self-confidence. Marie’s discontent about her body seems to translate to a desire to be like Floriane, and yet there are also strong strains of sexual feelings mingled in with the hero worship. Floriane’s character appears as clearly defined and developed as her body, and Marie’s less defined character appears to waver and then become absorbed in Floriane’s shadow.

Although Floriane rejects Marie’s tentative worship at first, gradually she begins to allow Marie into her life, and Marie, assuming the subordinate position in the relationship, seems content to do favours and provide alibis for Floriane. While Floriane initially seems the stuck-up type: popular, attractive, and confident, her cruel streak appears to be put aside for her friendship with Marie, and yet an edge of cruelty remains. Which is the real Floriane?

Meanwhile, Anne, left to her own devices, begins to have romantic feelings for Francois and makes bold overtures towards him in front of his team mates.  Marie’s close friendship with Anne seems ruined, and at the same time, Marie’s new friendship with Floriane doesn’t bode well. Adults stay largely in the film’s background, and the parents are noticeably absent while the teens are left to their own devices.  

In some ways, Water Lilies tackles the familiar issues that often crop up in films that focus on teens: sexual inexperience, sexual confusion, conformity, etc. But Water Lilies is a beautiful film that handles these issues with great subtlety and it’s impossible to guess where the film is taking the viewer until the final credits roll.

To say more about the plot would ruin the viewing experience for those out there who haven’t watched the film yet. If you are a fan of French film, and enjoy slow-moving, thoughtful and provocative drama, then chances are that you will enjoy Water Lilies from first time director Celine Sciamma.

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L’Effrontee (1985)


“I need three cups of coffee before I can talk to you.”


leffrontee1L’Effrontee is a charming, refreshing film from director Claude Miller which focuses on a thirteen-year-old girl named Charlotte (played by 13 year old Charlotte Gainsborg). It’s summer, school is out, and Charlotte seems lost. She lives with her widower father and an elder brother. Charlotte’s brother is lucky enough to be going away with a group of friends for the summer. Meanwhile that leaves Charlotte at home and feeling sorry for herself.


Charlotte is an awkward, dangerous age. She’s gawky and unattractive, and even though housekeeper Leone (Bernadette Lafont) tells her not to worry and that life will happen soon enough, it’s not happening fast enough for Charlotte. She spends her evenings looking across the street at the teen hangout. Charlotte’s father has no idea of how to cope with her, and most of their interactions are fraught with frustration. For company and friendship, Charlotte is an unpaid babysitter for Lulu (Julie Glenn), a small girl whose ill health necessitates a great of medical attention.


On the last day of school, Charlotte sees a video of a child prodigy, diminutive pianist Clara Baumann (Clothilde Baudon). Blonde, delicate Clara looks like the perfect princess that Charlotte longs to be, and when Charlotte learns that Clara is going to be staying in a local mansion, she’s determined to meet her idol.


Charlotte also meets and befriends a creepy sailor Sam (Jean Philippe Ecoffey)—twice her age—who has nasty designs on this 13 year old.


Charlotte doesn’t really know who she is yet, and at her awkward age, she’s no longer a child, but not yet a woman. She knows that she doesn’t look like the perfectly-featured Clara, but she longs to look like that, and thus she choose the sort of frilly dresses that Clara would wear for a concert—imagining that the clothes will somehow convert her into a Clara-look-alike. There’s one scene when she puts on Clara’s concert dress and manages to look like a cheap box of chocolates wrapped in red frilly ribbon, but Leone manages to reach out and help Charlotte.


Charlotte is unaware that the choices she is about to make are shaping her adult character. She can either continue being unhappy with herself or she can accept herself for who and what she is. If the film sounds like some sort of sticky, syrupy nonsense, it isn’t. With its themes of identity and loneliness, should appeal to all ages. This was Charlotte Gainsbourg’s third film role, and as a fan of this excellent actress, it is wonderful to see her in this early role. And besides that, she steals the film.

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Buddha of Suburbia (1993)

 “The 60s have been given notice tonight.”

Kareem–known as Kreemy (Naveen Williams) to his friends is just a teenager when the film Buddha of Suburbia begins. His father, Haroon (Roshan Seth) is Indian, and his mother, Margaret (Brenda Blethyn) is British. There are rather obvious troubles in the marriage when Haroon starts teaching yoga and his version of the ‘Meaning of Life’ to groups of bored socialites under the guiding influence of well-to-do and lonely divorcee, Eva (Susan Fleetwood). Kareem, is at first, an observer of his parents’ disintegrating marriage, but then the film’s focus shifts to Kareem as he struggles with an acting career.

buddha of suburbiaBuddha of Suburbia is a coming-of-age story set against the rapidly changing social trends of the 70s, so there’s a great deal here to satisfy the nostalgia crowd. With a soundtrack from T-Rex, Gary Glitter, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Pretenders, The Police, etc., the film covers pertinent social themes of the times–drug use, communes, racism (including the presence of The National Front), class wars, the Women’s Movement, and the seductive lures of Punk (fans of the Sex Pistols will recognize the scene involving Charlie Hero which exactly mirrors an infamous interview with the Sex Pistols that occurred in Dec 1976). Against the social backdrop of the troubled 70s, Kareem seeks fame and fortune through an acting career amidst a sea of moral hazards. This ambitious television series tackles the 70s in an epic fashion, and some of the characters here are great creations. Kareem’s cousin, for example, is forced to make an arranged marriage. Her Indian bridegroom is a pleasant enough fellow who adds a great deal of the film’s enjoyment. The marriage, once achieved by gleeful parents, serves as a testament of the trials endured by modern Indian youth whose parents insist on enforcing tradition. Kareem’s experiences in the theatre range from a wacky experimental director to an exploitive ‘serious’ director who uses his actors for more than just the stage. Eva is another great character–her ever-forward gaze pushes Kareem. She sees life as a never-ending journey, and she’s never content to stop in one spot for long.

The film, however, creates Kareem largely as a passive observer. It is as though the 70s roll in front of his eyes leaving marks on his soul, but without him being actively engaged. While I really enjoyed this 220-minute film based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi, it lands solidly in the realm of good-but-not-great films.

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All Things Fair (1995)

 “Frank was a hostage I took once.”

all-things-fairIt’s Sweden in 1943, and teenager Stig (Johan Widerberg) is a 15-year-old boy whose attention is focused on the female sex. The notes sent around the classroom, the whispered debates, and the mythology surrounding sexuality all indicate that Stig and his classmates don’t really have a clue what sex is all about, but it’s still a subject that occupies their minds. A new teacher is assigned to the class–a prim and proper, attractive, married 37 year old, named Viola (Marika Lagercrantz). Before too long, Viola and Stig are engaged in a steamy affair.

It’s fairly easy for Stig to have an affair with his beautiful teacher, and it’s also easy for him to keep it a secret from his family. Stig’s family life is decent–but claustrophobic. He lives in a tiny flat with his mother, has a semi-adversarial relationship with his father, and is deeply attached to a brother who’s serving on a submarine in the Swedish navy. Stig’s job as a cinema usher allows him some freedom of movement–plus Viola’s lingerie salesman husband travels away from home. Things begin to unravel when Stig meets and befriends Viola’s husband, Frank (Tomas von Bromsson). Frank is a pitiful drunk whose eccentric inventions are endearing at best, and annoying if you’re Viola. During the course of the affair, Frank declines, and as with all typically pathological marriages, it’s impossible to identify cause and effect. Is Frank the victim of Viola’s appetites or the cause of them?

While the film plot may sound cliched, it isn’t. Writer/director Bo Widerberg (father of the actor who plays Stag) elevates the film far above the tawdry, cliched stereotypes, and instead All Things Fair is a serious, rather beautiful depiction of one teenager’s exposure to the ugliness of adult life. There’s a poignancy here that is both refreshing and bittersweet. The story hints at a sense of impending doom and the backdrop of WWII underscores this. While the war is far away, the effects of it are still present. Stig battles silently at home with moral dilemmas but the distant echoes of a world at war carry horrific ramifications. All Things Fair is in Swedish with English subtitles.

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Nico and Dani (2000)

Spanish coming-of-age film

Nico and Dani  (Krampack) is a Spanish coming-of-age story involving two 17-year-old boys and their shifting relationship over the course of a summer holiday. When the film begins, Dani’s parents depart for a holiday of their own leaving Dani (Fernando Ramallo) alone at a beach house with just the occasional company of the housekeeper and a tutor. Things begin to improve for Dani, however, when his best friend, Nico (Jordi Vilches) arrives. Nico and Dani are obsessed with sex, and Nico, who has the potential to grow into the role of an adult smooth-talking pick-up machine, has numerous theories about girls and sex. And he can’t wait to try out those theories on another couple of young holidaymakers, Elena (Marieta Orozco) and Berta (Esther Nubiola).

While Nico concocts plans to spend time with the girls, Dani sometimes resents the inclusion of Elena and Berta in their plans. Dani expresses his opinion that he wants to spend time with Nico alone, and Nico–who’s busily creating plans to seduce Elena–just doesn’t understand that. But frustration and boredom await both Nico and Dani at every turn. Consequently, the boys begin a little experimentation on their own, and this leads to a sexual awakening and subsequent understated catharsis for both boys.

The film’s emphasis is on the importance of guidance during these crucial adolescence years. While Nico leaps into male-female relationships with unswerving enthusiasm, Dani does not. The subject matter is treated with a certain amount of tenderness, but the humour factor never becomes trite. Serious undercurrents stress the responsibility of adults when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation, and while Dani’s tutor subtly hints that homosexuality is acceptable, her gay friend, Julian (Chisco Amado) is ready to take it one step further. These are serious life-forming experiences taking place here, and the film never lets the viewer forget that for one moment. From director Cesc Gay, Nico and Dani is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)

Coming-of-Age Tale

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is an excellent BBC made-for-television film. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jeanette Winterson, this is one of the rare instances when the film adaptation is better than the book. This bildungsroman follows the childhood and adolescence of Jess (Charlotte Coleman), who is adopted and raised by a Christian evangelical woman (Geraldine McEwan) in Northern England in the 50s and 60s.

While the novel is dark at times, the film captures the bizarre moments of Jess’s childhood. Even as a small child, she’s dragged off to church meetings with the adults, and since Jess tends to take some of the dire parts of religion quite literally, there are moments of humour here. Jess’s adoptive mother is an unbending, relentless woman who raises Jess with scant attention to her childhood needs, but instead hopes she’ll be a missionary. She keeps Jess from school because it’s a “breeding ground” and this is an idea that Jess repeats without having the slightest idea of what it means.

The evangelical crowd Jess and her mother socialize with are largely a nice, well-intended, misguided group, but Jess’s mother is the most fervent, the most fanatical of the bunch. Their preacher, Pastor Finch (Kenneth Cranham) misuses his authority to pass cruel judgments on “his flock” if they dare question established hierarchy. When Jess falls in love with another girl, the preacher tries “casting out” the devil within, and these scenes capture the frightening, suffocating authoritarianism of the preacher’s unreasonable, misguided and cruel rule. Whereas the novel accentuates the mythic element of the tale, the film is rife with sardonic, black humour.

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