Opening titles

I work at a pupil referral unit, whose purpose is to meet the needs of students whose behavioural difficulties or medical needs have led to mainstream school places becoming untenable. Given these experiences, which students and families often construe as failure, attachment-aware and trauma-informed ways of working can prove vital. Schools exist to enable learning; in schools like ours, almost all learning has a relational aspect, expressing itself differently for each child.1 A related goal, particularly relevant for older students, is to show or embody ‘plausible routes to adulthood’. This pictures adulthood as a well-ordered landscape; it’s possible that some of us experience the adult state as improvisatory, or precarious.

Scene setting

Virtual team meetings, quiz afternoons and so on have helped the staff team to maintain morale and a sense of shared purpose, despite challenges wrought by the pandemic. This article explains how a virtual film club, set up during spring 2020, offers its own contribution. I’d like to ground this exploration in a sense of what cinema means to me. My first memory of cinema involves seeing Christopher Reeve repeatedly save the world during a Superman2 and Superman II3 double bill at the Leeds Odeon. From my own limited demographic perspective, these films and the equally successful original Star Wars trilogy4–6 formed part of the shared culture of the generational cohort to which I belonged. As a teenager, the catchphrase-rich dialogue, and teasing attitude towards adult authority, of films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure7 and Wayne’s World8 – designed to appeal to adolescent and especially adolescent male sensibilities – offered other kinds of shared language, self-consciously adopted and enjoyed.

As a professional, experience in alternative educational provision has shown me the value of feature films referencing, for example, young people’s decision-making regarding recreational drugs. Used sensitively, film excerpts can facilitate boundaried yet meaningful discussions of contentious topics. I’ve led such discussions among both young people, equipping some to make better choices, and professionals, promoting increased empathy by destigmatising and contextualising antisocial behaviour.

Last but not least, we’ve all experienced the power of cinema to express some aspect of our experience. Which of us hasn’t heard the phrase ‘Groundhog Day’ used to reference the repetitive, adrift qualities of lockdown? A reflective appreciation of cinema, then, unlocks commonalities of experience – salient when we’re pulling together to confront shared threats such as the pandemic. Within our film club, we hold a range of perspectives: there are four females and two males; our formative years range from the 1960s to the 1990s; our geographical, religious, political and class backgrounds vary. Inevitably, there are perspectives missed: we all identify as White British, for instance. Nevertheless, if watching films which narrate others’ real or fictionalised experiences builds empathy, sharing individual responses in groups widens the empathy circle. Trading on our professional shared languages – and using Mark Kermode’s televisual survey of the genre9 as a starting point – we’ve focused on ‘coming-of-age’ movies, films foregrounding transitions from childhood to adulthood. Having watched individually, we’ve gathered on Zoom to discuss. In this article, I talk about the films we watched and share some of our perspectives. The conclusion offers thoughts for possible future explorations.

Different for girls?

Our first films were Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me10 and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis11. Stand by Me features four 12-year-old male friends, growing up in small-town Oregon in the late 1950s. After accidentally learning the whereabouts of the dead body of a boy their own age, they set off 20 miles into the countryside to ‘find’ it and claim a police reward. 

Persepolis, an animated movie, depicts Marjane Satrapi’s formative years in Iran, against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. In her mid-teens, her parents, aware of her outspoken character and fearful for her safety, send her to a French-speaking lycée in Vienna. Air guitar in a Tehran bedroom (rocking out to AC/DC and other ‘black market’ Western sounds) gives way to ear-blasting 1980s’ Austrian hardcore gigs; there are friendships, rows, heartbreak, and other significant moments.

These films, featuring autobiographical narrators in bittersweet, reminiscent mode, invite us to recall our own adolescence. This can be an important part of what practitioners need to do, to remain optimally emotionally available. Gestalt psychotherapist Mark McConville, for instance, speaks of inviting workshop participants, ‘…solid, stable, mature… committed people’, to recall their teenage years. Stories of ‘…impulsive behaviour, irrational decisions, alienation, loneliness, victimising and victimisation’12 that emerge share common ground with stories teenage clients tell, except that we, as adults, are thereby invited to ‘check our privilege’ of hindsight: we know how it all turned out.

Other reflections arising from ‘coming-of-age’ cinema concern the extent to which adolescence, in one sense a universal category, varies according to time, place, gender, ethnicity, social class and so on. Things also look different from changed vantage points. One participant had enjoyed Stand by Me as a teenager; she was struck, watching again, by the objectifying, almost misogynistic, language used. This compromised but didn’t ruin her viewing experience. It was interesting and useful for us to reflect on aspects of the wider culture, not least structural inequalities and power dynamics, which used to pass us by. This objectification, and the boys’ fascinated, compulsive joking about body functions, can also be viewed as responses to the confusion arising from the hormonal and body changes of puberty, together with a desire, developmentally prompted, to separate from a domesticity which, at that time and place, was pictured and experienced as female. When thinking about films specifically, or life in general, empathy and critical awareness can complement rather than oppose one another. 

While the main action of Stand by Me unfolds across a single weekend, the events of Persepolis take place over two decades, embodying a warmer if still conflicted attitude to home and family. The former movie prompted a discussion of friendships, which of the boys we each most resembled, golden or transformative times in our own upbringing and, tangentially, views about young people’s increasingly housebound, online, surveilled lives13. Persepolis invited us to reflect on how teenagers negotiate and incorporate (or reject) different cultural influences. While we may vary in the extent to which we self-disclose, we all inevitably bring ourselves to the work; these films formed a powerful first reel of our work together.

Keeping it real

Our next films, Boyz n the Hood14 and Lady Bird,15 invited us to reflect on authenticity in cinema. John Singleton directed Boyz n the Hood, at the age of 24, becoming the youngest person (displacing Orson Welles) and the first African American ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The film follows Tre and friends as they come of age in Crenshaw, an area of south-central Los Angeles, which is wracked by gun violence, simmering racial tension and, then as now, the victimisation of Black Americans by police and other state agencies. This was a story that Singleton had to tell. He said, ‘I wasn’t going to have somebody from Idaho… direct this movie’16. This film’s air of heightened realism is enhanced by directorial tricks, such as intentionally not warning cast members about when they would hear gunfire, making on-camera reactions all the more authentic.

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s celebrated directorial debut, began with its protagonist’s name. ‘I just put everything aside and I wrote at the top of the page… Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.’17 The film tells the story of its heroine’s formative years in too-quiet Sacramento, including her close, tempestuous relationship with her mother Marion, working double-shifts as a nurse to fund an expensive education. Its working title, ‘Mothers and Daughters’, encapsulated Gerwig’s intention to put this cinematically under-examined relationship on screen. Her directorial methods also foregrounded authenticity and realism. She gave cast members her high school yearbooks to browse through, wore a prom dress while directing the prom scene and asked Saoirse Ronan, playing the title character, not to use makeup to cover acne so that she would look like ‘a real teenager’.

Lady Bird asks us to reflect on how we can equip teenagers in forming and seeking to realise life goals. Boyz n the Hood, showing what school means to its protagonists, invites reflection on how practitioners sometimes fail to understand the history and lived experience of minority communities. History itself can be a matter of perspective: to quote Malcolm X’s terse challenge to America’s preferred foundational narrative, ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us’.18 At the same time, education offers aspiration and escape. These films also show the importance of thinking systemically rather than naively about family. In each, a parental couple (one together, one separated) equips a teenager for their life journey, while also managing the co-parent relationship and navigating the challenges inherent in their own life stage.

So bad, it’s good

In Manchester by the Sea19, Lee is called back to the coastal resort of the film’s title, following his brother’s death. Fraternal grief aside, he has his own reasons for not wanting to remain there longer than necessary, so when he is named in his brother’s will as the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick, this is a challenge. As the film unfolds, we see flashbacks to happier times 10 years ago when he and his brother used to take Patrick out fishing, and to the traumatic events that have kept him away. 

By way of almost total contrast, Pretty in Pink20 stars Molly Ringwald as Andi, a girl who – like Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson – self-consciously hails from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. The film portrays Andi’s central romantic dilemma, in that zany but loyal friend Phil (nicknamed Duckie) and the richer, cooler, more sophisticated Blane both admire her. As prom nears, whom will she choose? This is reputedly one of the great 1980s’ teen romcoms: while we approached it in a spirit of possible light relief, following Manchester by the Sea, our actual response proved more nuanced. It was our consensus view, for instance, that Blane is one of the least prepossessing, least interesting ‘love interests’ ever committed to celluloid. Also, while the former film felt real to us – reminding us of teenagers and adults we’ve known, whose deadpan accounts of tough circumstances are enlivened by the same flashes of dark humour that light up this difficult, truthful film – this felt like a fairy tale, and not in a good way. We found the sexual politics regressive and wondered about how few people of colour were depicted in a film purportedly set in Chicago. 

While fairy tales, a rich cultural resource, speak to us on an archetypal level,21 they invite identification rather than empathy. Cinderella and Prince Charming, lacking nuanced inner lives, are plot vehicles in which the hearer or reader, a child or an older person accessing the more childlike part of themselves, invests. Part of what redeemed Pretty in Pink for us, helping us see it in this context, was an article by Molly Ringwald22 in which, working back from today’s cultural context, she reflects on her earlier career. In particular, she quotes Emil Wilbekin, ‘…a gay, African American friend of a friend’, founder of advocacy organisation Native Son, as saying that this and similar films showed him that, ‘…there were other people like me who were struggling with their identities, feeling out of place in the social constructs of high school, and dealing with… family ideals and pressures’. While visibility and seeing or reading characters who resemble them matters to young people, even the most imperfect representations can inspire the next generation not only to survive but also to go further, offering succeeding generations what they themselves lacked.23

This article can only scratch the surface of what is still a work in progress. Our next scheduled discussions are on Rocks24 and County Lines,25 recent films which put contemporary British social reality on screen. There are, of course, aspects of ‘coming-of-age’ cinema which we have not yet approached. At some point, for example, we may explore earlier representations of this theme – for example, in social realist or ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, such as A Taste of Honey26 or Kes.27 Though we work closely with Somerset’s Traveller Education Service, we haven’t yet watched any films which foreground the experiences of youngsters from travelling backgrounds. We also haven’t watched any films in which LGBTQ+ themes and stories take centre stage and, last but not least, we haven’t explored any of the recent film sequences in which protagonists come of age within fantasy or dystopian settings.

What we have been able to do, however, is share our enjoyment of several films in a semi-structured way, get to know one another better, personally and professionally, and thereby, we hope, enhance what we offer to the larger team and to our students. Our film club continues to be an exercise in empathy – not empathy considered as a consolation prize, but the sort of strong culturally mediated empathy that moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum defends, implying ‘…a duty to secure for each person the entitlements they require… for them to exercise their full humanity’.28


1 Geddes H. Attachment in the classroom. London: Worth; 2006.
2 Superman. Richard Donner (dir). Warner Bros; 1978.
3 Superman II. Richard Lester (dir). Warner Bros; 1980.
4 Star Wars. George Lucas (dir). 20th Century Fox; 1977.
5 The Empire Strikes Back. Irvin Kershner (dir). 20th Century Fox; 1980.
6 Return of the Jedi. Richard Marquand (dir). 20th Century Fox; 1983.
7 Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Stephen Herek (dir). Orion Pictures; 1989.
8 Wayne’s World. Penelope Spheeris (dir). Paramount Pictures; 1992.
9 Coming of Age. Secrets of Cinema Series 1:3 [television programme]. Mark Kermode (presenter). BBC4 2018; 31 July.
10 Stand by Me. Rob Reiner (dir). Columbia Pictures; 1986.
11 Persepolis. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (dirs). Diaphana Distribution; 2007.
12 McConville M. Adolescence: psychotherapy and the emergent self. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1995.
13 Louv M. Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York: Workman; 2005.
14 Boyz n the Hood. John Singleton (dir). Columbia Pictures; 1991.
15 Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig (dir). Universal Pictures/Focus Features; 2017.
16 Smith N. John Singeleton reflects on Boyz n the Hood: ‘I didn’t know anything’. The Guardian 2016; 13 June.
17 Waters M. ‘Lady Bird’: the history of the title and character name. Hollywood Reporter 2018; 7 February.
18 Malcolm X. [Speech.] Washington Heights, New York: 1964; 29 March. Text archived at amdocs/texts/malcolmx0364.html (accessed 7 April 2021).
19 Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan (dir). Roadside Attractions; 2016.
20 Pretty in Pink. Howard Deutch (dir). Paramount Pictures; 1986.
21 Bettelheim B. The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf; 1976.
22 Ringwald M. What about ‘The Breakfast Club’? Revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo. The New Yorker 2018; 6 April. culture/personal-history/what-aboutthe-breakfast-club-molly-ringwaldmetoo-john-hughes-pretty-in-pink
23 Ailette de Bodard author website. The Stories I wanted to read. [Online.] (accessed 29 March 2021).
24 Rocks. Sarah Gavron (dir). Altitude Film Distribution; 2019.
25 County Lines. Henry Blake (dir). BFI Distribution; 2019.
26 A Taste of Honey. Tony Richardson (dir). British Lion Films; 1961.
27 Kes. Ken Loach (dir). United Artists; 1969.
28 McRobie H. Martha Nussbaum, empathy and the moral imagination. [Online.] Open Democracy 2014; 7 March. https://www. martha-nussbaum-empathy-and-moral-imagination/ (accessed 29 March 2021).