Having written previously about coming of age in movies generally,1 in this article I consider films foregrounding LGBTQ+ characters, themes and stories. I refer occasionally to ‘survey respondents’, who are friends and family who participated in a questionnaire distributed via social media, inviting them to tell me about films that felt meaningful to them. Responses ranged from one-liners (‘watch this movie’) through to extended reflections. To that degree, this article is a team effort and I’m grateful to everyone who shared their perspectives with me.
If you could be anywhere in the world
In Booksmart,2 studious best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Denver) realise, as graduation looms, that they have just one day ‘to have partied during high school’. In typically goal-oriented fashion, they set about remedying this deficit. Twenty-four hours, three house parties, one fluffed romantic encounter, one awkward crush and one arrest later, they have a more rounded experience to look back on.
In Circumstance,3 a French-American-Iranian co-production directed by Maryam Keshavarz, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and girlfriend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) also enjoy good times. The expectations that Atafeh and Shireen’s families and the wider community hold for them are clear, focusing on education, to a degree, but ultimately on marriage, which offers safety and adherence to the cultural norms of an overtly patriarchal and authoritarian society. Not all young people are thinking along these lines: some create clandestine, often illegal, social spaces, which offer opportunities for drinking, dancing, self-expression, in ways that mainstream Iranian society does not allow.
In Booksmart,2 the social world we see on screen is self-consciously liberal and aspirational. Amy, we’re given to understand, ‘came out’ years ago, with little fuss. The fact that she’s gay and Molly is straight feels incidental to both their friendship and the film. At moments, we might feel that Circumstance3 is unfolding within the same world, despite the warning presence of grainy CCTV footage during early scenes. However, the film’s protagonists ultimately overestimate their ability to ‘create space' within a hostile social climate. Whereas Booksmart enables us to think about freedom and choices, Circumstance encourages us to reflect on old and new ways in which LGBTQ+ youngsters are surveilled and their freedoms undermined. If we wanted further context about how the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality plays out across Europe, America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, we could read Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line,4 which is simultaneously a travelogue, a testament to lived experience and a meditation on intersectionality.
Two briefer mentions of films about female coming-of-age journeys: Blue is the Warmest Colour5 has been celebrated by many, with a survey respondent praising its ‘grittiness’. This film, which won awards at Cannes in 2013, the same year France equalised its marriage laws, allowing same-sex couples to marry, puts real teenage and 20-something life, with all its sweat, passion, snottiness, confusion and boredom, onto the screen, making the central love story involving and real. This film also has something to say about how age and social class differences can express themselves by way of young people’s different levels of willingness to assert themselves and to ‘take up space’ in the world. There has been controversy, however, about the way sex scenes between Emma and Adele were staged. Julie Meroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film was based, stated that, ‘…as a feminist and lesbian spectator, I cannot endorse the direction that [the director] took on these matters.’6,7 There’s also Go Fish,8 a movie born from writer Guinevere Turner and writer-director Rose Troche’s determination (in the mid 1990s) to ‘make visible’ their own lives and those of friends and associates within Chicago’s lesbian scene. In this film, dating from a post-grunge, post-riot grrrl cultural moment, a community puts itself in the picture.
An open book confronts me
A non-binary gay survey respondent describes being misgendered by teachers and other professionals. ‘While it doesn’t make me feel suicidal, it still really hurts. I wish that they could know how much.’ Film and television depictions can feel like a lifeline: ‘…it makes me happy to see people like me in the media.’ While life experience beyond the gender binary is becoming more visible, coming-of-age films with non-binary and/or trans protagonists are few and far between. Television is, perhaps, somewhat ahead here.
Next in this issue
One feature film which does put non-binary adolescent experience onto the big screen is They,9 Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s directorial debut. This intensely still, observational film follows 13-year-old J (Rhys Fehrenbacher) and family over the course of a weekend, at a time when a recent decrease in bone density indicates that they must stop taking puberty blockers and make choices, with their family and clinicians, about possible treatment pathways. For J, assigned male at birth and journaling about whether they feel more ‘male’ or more ‘female’, this could involve taking gender-affirming (also known as cross-sex) hormones, such as oestrogen, which would cause physical changes, including breast growth. This is an evolving field, with legislation and practice guidelines varying across the world. In the UK, NHS guidelines state that gender-affirming hormones can be prescribed to teenagers aged 16 and above who have been on hormone blockers for at least 12 months.10
J, we infer, is growing up within a relatively accepting milieu, albeit with some parental distance implied. For much of the film, they are looked after by their adult sister and her boyfriend; mum and dad are absent, arriving late for the all-important clinic appointment. ‘Arthouse’ almost to a fault, They references other films which evoke the transience of time generally and childhood in particular. The ending is left unclear: there’s nothing which feels triumphant about this subtle, beautiful and, to some extent, frustrating film. While it’s possible to imagine a non-binary coming-out film with an Everybody’s talking about Jamie11-style story arc (to name a movie celebrated by one survey respondent for its inclusivity and positivity), this film is yet to be made.
There are other recent films deserving of mention. One is XXY,12 directed by Lucía Puenzo, a film about the coming-out journey, including instances of harassment up to and including sexual assault, of intersex teenager Alex (Inés Efron). In respect of the trans experience, there’s the feature-length documentary film, Petite Fille,11 which follows a year in the life of Sasha, a seven-year-old French girl assigned male at birth. For parents, educators, therapists and others, these films may widen the circle of understanding of gender diversity as lived experience rather than as a set of ‘talking points’. These latter two movies also contain inspiring depictions of parents and/or educators as allies.
Not ready for everything to change
Simon (Nick Robinson), the eponymous hero of Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon,14 is living ‘a perfectly normal life… with one huge-ass secret’. Secrets and adolescence go together. Mark McConville’s three-stage model of adolescence15 suggests ‘disembedding’ from parents or caregivers as a precursor to the succeeding stage of ‘interiority’, the discovery and exploration of one’s inner personal and emotional landscape. A preoccupying secret for Simon is that he’s gay: the sense of separation of which this forms a part is symbolised by a moment when he looks through the living room window at a family scene which includes his little sister but not him. Realising that you’re gay (or straight, or something else) is one thing; falling in love is another. It’s Simon’s central love relationship with Blue, whom he meets and falls in love with online, that enables his initiatory journey into the self. Love, Simon highlights important differences between straight and queer adolescence. However, while this film illustrates Mark McConville’s model, to an extent, Simon also suggests limits to its universality when he comments that ‘…it feels unfair that only gay people have to come out’. His observation leads into a fantasy sequence in which straight youngsters do, in fact, do so, offering rehearsed words to parents who are, variously, disgusted, confused, hostile, benignly indifferent (‘we always knew’) or uncomprehending. He then imagines possible futures in which he can be open with others about who he is, running through various scenarios, including one which turns into an all-singing, all-dancing musical theatre number. ‘Well, maybe not that gay,’ he comments, discarding this fun but somewhat stereotypical scenario and continuing to search for a way of living more openly that also feels congruent to him as an individual. ‘Coming out’, which may begin with a commitment to being fully open and honest with oneself, can be viewed as more of a continuum than an event. It’s also been modelled as a developmental process (for instance, Vivienne Cass’s stages of confusion, comparison, tolerance, acceptance, pride and synthesis).16
The final stage in Mark McConville’s developmental model is ‘reintegration’, offering the chance of a reconfigured relationship between parents or caregivers and their now adult child. This depends on the parents having the capacity or willingness to be accepting. While Simon’s parents can offer this, others can’t. Depictions such as Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight,17 or Russell T Davies’ recent TV drama It’s A Sin,18 can help us understand how gay men have found mentors or strong friendship networks with which to integrate.
Sky, leaves, sunlight, shadow
One film suggested by a survey respondent, a 50-something, gay, cis man, is Patrik, 1.5.19 He praises the film for its sweetness, humour and ‘…representation of what I grew up wanting but assumed I couldn’t have: a stable, loving relationship and a child’. This speaks to how expectations have, thankfully, liberalised over recent decades. In this film, Sven and Göran move into a new neighbourhood and prepare to welcome their adoptive son, Patrik. There’s excitement, doubt, the half-admitted, half-denied sense of how utterly a baby will change things; there’s also kitting out the nursery, telling the family and so on. When Patrik does arrive, he isn’t ‘Patrik, age 1.5’, as expected. Sven and Göran have, due to a clerical error and before anyone quite realises what’s happened, taken charge of ‘Patrik, age 15’, a young man with criminal convictions for violence, vehement though unformed homophobic views and no real previous stability in his life.
This film is good on, and funny about, ‘minority stress’: the mix of tolerance, genuine friendship and subtle microaggressions that Sven and Göran meet with from the neighbours. It’s also good on how the journey of parenthood will test any couple, revealing different fault lines at different times, depending on ‘age and stage’. My favourite moment in this film, however, communicates preverbally something of how being a child and being a parent are disorientating in different but parallel ways. While none of us emerge from either experience unchanged, empathy can be a powerfully connective and healing force amid life’s inevitable confusion. This is the moment at which Patrik, running from a hearing, which will seemingly undo the aforementioned clerical error by sending him back into institutional care, collapses onto some grass at the park. We see sky, leaves, sunlight and shadow from his point of view, which parallels the vantage point of an infant, lying in its cot. Göran is flat on his back on the grass too, having run after Patrik (he now fully wants this to work; Sven, still struggling with his own demons, has yet to come around). It is this exact moment at which Patrik first starts to experience a consistent, safe adult in a parenting role, quite literally ‘…getting alongside’ him, which enables the film’s ‘happy ever after’.
How not to be Mr Worth
Showing young people and families that we ‘get’ them can help build trust. Young people in schools and counselling settings are, thank goodness, being ‘got’ daily by trusted adults, who naturally and spontaneously share a passion for football, Bake Off, gospel music, Polish cuisine, anything, within reason. Just try to imagine, conversely, never feeling ‘got’.
An intelligent appreciation of LGBTQ+ coming-of-age cinema can, in a small way, help us widen our range of empathic cultural reference. This is likely to be the case, however we identify. As some of the films and programmes mentioned in this article illustrate (because they were made some time ago, like Go Fish; because they’re set in the past, like It’s A Sin; or because they contain some element of backstory, like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), there are both commonalities and differences between growing up LGBTQ+ now and having grown up so 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.
For other viewers, these films may help us understand younger LGBTQ+ clients as unique individuals who are just muddling through, often getting it spectacularly wrong and triumphantly right in equal measure. Our clients, like the protagonists of these films and like all of us, each have idiosyncratic ways of inhabiting gender and sexual identities. I’m reminded of the 50-something, heterosexual survey respondent who remarked, as an aside, that she really disliked being called ‘she’, having grown up being told it was rude to use the pronoun when talking about someone in the room. We have all absorbed various cultural constructs and folk beliefs about gender and sexuality from our earliest years and it can be instructive to uncover and reflect upon these. If we needed a case study illustrating how to be an unreflective and thereby awkward ally, the well-intentioned but cringeworthy behaviour of Creekwood High School’s Vice Principal, Mr Worth, in Love, Simon provides one.12
These films can supplement our education and prepare us to be advocates as well as therapists for LGBTQ+ young people and families. We can also become better equipped to help create communities embodying what one survey respondent called ‘diversity, joy and a sense of hope’.
1 Curl D. Coming of age. www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/bacp-children-young-people-andfamilies-journal/june-2021/coming-of-age/ (accessed March 2022).
2 Booksmart. Olivia Wilde (dir). United Artists; 2019.
3 Circumstance. Maryam Keshavarz (dir). Participant Media/Roadside Attractions; 2011.
4 Gevisser M. The pink line: the world’s queer frontiers. London: Profile; 2020.
5 Blue is the warmest colour. Abdellatif Kechiche (dir). Wild Bunch; 2013.
6 Blue is the warmest colour sex scenes are porn, says author of graphic novel. The Guardian 2013;
30 May. www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/30/blue-warmest-colour-porn-julie-maroh (accessed April 2022).
7 Blue is the Warmest Colour actors say filming lesbian love story was ‘horrible’. The Guardian 2013; 4 September. www.theguardian.com/film/2013/sep/04/blue-is-the-warmest-colour-actors-director (accessed April 2022).
8 Go fish. Rose Troche (dir). Samuel Goldwyn; 1994.
9 They. Anahita Ghazvinizadeh (dir). Mass Ornament Films; 2017.
10 NHS. Treatment: gender dysphoria. www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/treatment/ (accessed March 2022).
11 Everybody’s talking about Jamie. Jonathan Butterell (dir). Amazon Studios; 2021.
12 XXY. Lucía Puenzo (dir). Pyramide Distribution; 2007.
13 Petite fille. Storyville [televised documentary film]. Sébastien Lifshitz (dir). BBC4 2021; 30 June.
14 Love, Simon. Greg Berlanti (dir). 20th Century Fox; 2018.
15 McConville M. Adolescence: psychotherapy and the emergent self. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1995.
16 Davies D, Neal C. Pink therapy: a guide for counsellors working with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients. Buckingham: Open University Press; 1996.
17 Moonlight. Barry Jenkins (dir). A24; 2016.
18 It’s a sin [television series]. Russell T Davies (dir). Channel 4 2021; 19 January to 4 February.
19 Patrik, 1.5. Ella Lemhagen (dir). Sonet Film; 2008.