Nothing captures our teenage dreams – and dramas – quite like the big screen. If teenage culture was ‘born’ in the wake of World War Two, then its pulse was immediately connected to cinema: as a vivid reflection of youthful experience, and (for savvy Hollywood studios) recognition of a fresh new audience. In his 2007 book Teenage: The Prehistory Of Youth Culture: 1875-1945, British cultural commentator Jon Savage notes that: “the spread of American-style consumerism, the rise of sociology as an academic discipline and market research as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and sheer demographics turned adolescents into Teenagers.”
Coming-of-age cinema spans languages and genres; its settings and soundtracks frequently shape-shift, but its core elements never really grow old. As film critic Mark Kermode argued in his Secrets Of Cinema series, its lifeblood is “characters on the cusp of something, struggling with that netherworld between childhood and adulthood”, and their quest for identity and authenticity. Young lovers and fighters, misfits and prom nighters are kindred spirits across the decades, whether in the first wave of US hits like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause; the 1980s reign of John Hughes’s Brat Pack films (many starring quintessential teen queen Molly Ringwald, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink); or new releases such as Blinded by the Light, which unfolds in the relatively unglamorous English town of Luton in 1987, yet is unmistakably excitable at heart.
Blinded by the Light is directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham; Bride and Prejudice) and inspired by the experience (and long-standing Bruce Springsteen obsession) of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, as related in his 2007 book Greetings from Bury Park. Its suburban teen hero Javed (Viveik Kalra) is torn between loyalty towards his Pakistani-Muslim parents (Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra) and his reveries of poetry, rock ‘n’ roll and romance. The film’s coming-of-age theme has been a regular aspect of Chadha’s diverse career. “I guess I’m attracted to the youth perspective because I’ve always felt the need to make films that are hopeful, and complex in terms of their emotions,” she tells BBC Culture. “There’s a sense of hope there, and I’m able to get in there early with those audiences and empower them, and give them a sense of why we should be living in a multicultural world.
I try to tell stories about our families that involve conflict, but they’re also about respect and affection – Gurinder Chadha
“What I also like about teenage films is that it’s also about their parents,” says Chadha. “In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess’s parents wouldn’t let her play football for pretty spurious reasons, but you understood their perspective; the parents aren’t demonised. The same with Blinded by The Light: I try to tell stories about our families that involve conflict, but they’re also about respect and affection.”
Chadha adds that Blinded by The Light’s autobiographical source gives this teen film further relatability: “There’s a lot of heart, and also a lot of pain.” During one pivotal musical scene, Manzoor himself can be spotted fleetingly in the background. “It’s very hard to explain what it’s like to be in the middle of Luton town centre, with hundreds of extras and Born to Run blasting out, watching two kids playing me and my best friend,” he laughs. “It was a nod to the surrealism of it all.”
The stakes also seem really high; it’s about the shaping of who we become – Sarfraz Manzoor
Manzoor also points to the enduring appeal of the teen movie. “It’s a really reassuring genre; you kind of know what’s going to happen, but you enjoy the journey on the way,” he tells BBC Culture. “It also captures a really uncynical moment. I like the fact that when you’re 16, you can be open-hearted and full of passion and energy. The stakes also seem really high; it’s about the shaping of who we become.”
Blinded by The Light’s unabashedly feel-good spirit and 1980s kitsch is also spiked with unsettling moments: there are raw depictions of racism, as well as the hardship of immigrant life (Ghir’s performance as Javed’s strict dad, smartly suited yet dejected at the job centre, is often heartbreaking). “This is an utterly mainstream, crowd-pleasing film, but it’s not flimsy,” says Manzoor. “I think Gurinder increased the political context of my story; the overbearing sense of feeling like an outsider in the 80s is also timely for what’s happening now.”
The generation game
The universality of coming-of-age cinema is its key strength. Manzoor has been delighted that filmgoers from diverse backgrounds relate to Javed, as well as the character based on his own late father; he adds that his own favourite coming-of-age films, This Is England and An Education, might not reflect his cultural or social background, but their teen perspective still resonates.
“In America, nobody’s even talking about the fact that Blinded by The Light is about a Pakistani-Muslim kid; they are just relating to a story between a father and a son – and obviously, the music of Springsteen gives an in,” says Chadha. Musical discovery feels like an epiphany when you’re young, and teen cinema channels that power more thrillingly than any other medium, whether it’s the cool indie and new wave soundtracks of Brat Pack movies, or the explosive rave culture portrayed in Scottish drama Beats. In Blinded by The Light, Javed is converted to Springsteen’s blue-collar rock via his best friend’s tape collection, and it turns his life (and fashion sense) around.
“Once Bruce had given us permission to use his music, the pressure was on me to use it well, in a way that he and his fans would appreciate,” smiles Chadha. “His tracks are anthems for millions, and I worked hard to make the music part of the fabric of the film.” One of the film’s most memorable scenes takes place at a bhangra daytime rave packed with partygoers who’ve skipped school and evaded family rules; it evokes Chadha’s own teen experience – “the ‘daytimer’ scene made me who I am” – as well as her brilliant early documentary I’m British But…, which presented an array of young British Asian voices.
Coming-of-age cinema can be about expectation and aspiration, as well as reflection; as an Iraqi girl in 80s Britain, I definitely looked up to the high-school glamour of the Brat Pack films, even though there was no prom night in my ‘hood, nobody my age owned a car, and I was never going to look like Molly Ringwald. They projected what I felt teenage life should be like, without the exam revision or acne. In hindsight, we can see how limited many of these earlier films were in scope, even if they felt universal in appeal. Ringwald herself wrote a New Yorker feature last year, reflecting on her youth starring in John Hughes’s films, and how her perspectives have evolved with experience. She revealed a sharply heightened awareness of how exclusionary and predatory many of these film scenes were, and the casual sexism, racism and homophobia in their dialogue – as well as acknowledging how much they meant to viewers of all backgrounds.
“John’s movies convey the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel, and seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teenagers experience,” mused Ringwald. “Whether that’s enough to make up for the impropriety of the films is hard to say – even criticising them makes me feel like I’m divesting a generation of some of its fondest memories, or being ungrateful since they helped to establish my career. And yet embracing them entirely feels hypocritical. And yet, and yet…”
Hollywood’s coming-of-age cinema might be gradually growing up, but credit is due to independent and international films that have long portrayed a multiplicity of coming-of-age expressions. The 2018 US high-school romance Love, Simon offered the first major studio focus on a gay teen hero (who asserts: “I’m tired of living in a world where I can’t be who I am; I deserve a great love story”); it also follows an excellent range of coming-of-age dramas that happen to be about gay teens, such as the film adaptation of Jonathan Harvey’s London estate-set play Beautiful Thing; Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s 1998 debut feature Show Me Love (which Chadha cites as her own favourite coming-of-age film: “it’s full of so many beautiful nuances”); French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies; and Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight.
There’s also something uniquely powerful about the intensity of teenage friendships, as well as first love, whether it’s the multiracial banlieue gangs of La Haine; a range of fierce loyalty and frenemies from Heathers and Mean Girls to Sciamma’s Girlhood; or the geek-chic of Booksmart. Coming-of-age movies embody our human potential, often with a lightness of touch – and it is youth that drives change, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement of The Hate U Give or the poignant resolution of Blinded by The Light. There is always a future that glimmers beyond the final frames.
Blinded by the Light is released on 9 August in the UK and Ireland and on 14 August in the US and India.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.