How do children “come of age” today?

By Razib Khan | July 18, 2013 5:32 am

Two weeks ago I saw the film Mud. It’s one of the few “serious” movies I’ve watched over the past twoyears. I can’t tell you what Pacific Rim was really about despite having viewed it five days ago (aside from the striking fact that of the protagonists two were played by bizarrely similar looking actors). And yet aspects of Mud have stuck with me. Why? It’s not because of the plot, which was laughably implausible. Or the development of the characters, which I found a bit overwrought or cliche in most (though not all) cases. Rather, I am still reflecting upon the depiction of the main young protagonist, a fourteen year old played by Tye Sheridan, and the landscape upon which he is “coming of age,” the central theme of the film. The specific details of the concerns of a teenage boy navigating new found feelings toward the opposite sex, an unstable family life, and a pedestrian rural milieu, are not novel. Rather, it was the whole portrait which I think warrants further exploration here in 2013.

Not Arkansas, but not that different
Credit: Gary Halvorson, Oregon Archives

Though notionally set in the town of De Witt in the Mississippi delta area of Arkansas, Mud could have played out in any region of small town America without changing the substance of the film. But one thing that perplexed me: when do the events depicted in the film occur? There is one scene in the film where one of the teens stumbles upon a stash of Penthouse magazines, to his great excitement. A depiction of print pornography strikes me as a tell that the film is set before 1995. Mud is also a movie where landline telephones abound and are of great utility. No one uses mobile phones. But the chronology is never explicit, and not all elements line up to a pre-1995 era. One of the supporting characters is alluded to have seen action in Vietnam. If this character was 30 in 1970, then he would have been in his early to mid 50s before 1995. As it is the actor playing the character is 70, and he looks to be depicting an individual of his real current age. If that character was 30 in 1970, then he would be 70 “now,” which would mean that the film was set in 2010. The real now.

It brings to mind one critique of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress: a fictional liberal arts campus where no one seems to be using cellular phones. But could the clever and mannered repartee so central to Stillman’s seminal Metropolitan even be plausible today?* I can’t believe that the dialogue between upper middle class New York City young adults would be possible at such length without the interruption of texts, etc. Similarly, the innocence and naivete of the young adolescents in Mud is probably not believable in a world with smartphones. This made me reflect upon my own youth…I was a teenager in the early to mid 1990s, the very last of those for whom print pornography might be titillating. Additionally, I lived in a town in the Intermontane West not too different from De Witt in its sense of isolation, and frankly backwardness. Though I always assumed that I would have a career which related to science, many of my close friends were much more like the young characters in Mud in their family circumstances and aspirations.

I did not live and grow up in a mythic and fantastical past. But the fact that visual narratives which are presumably attempting to comment in some deep fashion upon the human condition such as Mud and Damsels in Distress have to implicitly peel away essential and ubiquitous aspects of contemporary modernity is notable (in particular, information technology). It is as if this is necessary for them to be able to further their aims of exploring the texture of their characters strikes without distraction. There is a reason that Greek mythology or contemporary epic fantasy appeal to us despite their strange and startling settings. With contexts stripped out of any modern referent the only “signal” that comes through are the crisp and universal ones. Certain relationships, the order of things, have become muddied and convoluted in the layers of complexity which modernity compels us to accept as a matter of course. An ahistorical 2013 no longer encumbered with the distractions of modern necessities is a cleaner canvas upon which one can paint the grand themes of life.

To give an example of what I’m thinking of, there is one scene in Mud where the teenage protagonist looks longingly upon an object of his inchoate affections in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly. I remember these sorts of activities in my own misbegotten youth. Doesn’t it seem much more plausible though that today you would “Facebook stalk” the objection of your adolescent affections? I can’t imagine watching a film where a substantial fraction of the screen time involves surfing the web, or texting back and forth. But that’s exactly what would have to happen in a a coming of age film embedded in an information technology rich world!

Every generation thinks that it is the last and first in some deep fundamental way. Most are not. But I think it is possible that my own generation is first and last. The last of those weaned on low bandwidth analog 20th century information transmission devices. The first of those navigating the most primitive of the high bandwidth 21st century information technologies.

* Though filmed in 1989-1990, it was actually set in the late 1960s, though that was not particularly emphasized.

MORE ABOUT: Mud, Technology

Comments (5)

  1. EcceLuna

    This is a really interesting article, and I agree with the general point: that modernity has in some ways deeply complicated our self-understanding, our understanding of the world, and how we represent or articulate these things (hopefully I didn’t misunderstand the upshot here! Though, let me add, that *every* era, modern and pre-modern, presumably faced its own difficulties in all these areas; it’s just that modernity brings it about in a distinctive way). I’m not sure, though, that I’m on board with some of the specific insights offered.

    “I can’t imagine watching a film where a substantial fraction of the screen time involves surfing the web, or texting back and forth. But that’s exactly what would have to happen in a a coming of age film embedded in an information technology rich world!”

    There are a couple of things to say about this. If a work of art, whether it be a novel, film, etc., is in some crucial sense *about* a particular time period–if the time period is *essential* to substance of the work–then it’s often very difficult to successfully portray one’s contemporary historical moment. Difficulties are of course inherent in trying to portray any period of history, but capturing the present (ANY present moment) can be particularly difficult (let me stress: I’m not talking about capturing the present in a movie like Taken or something; I’m talking about movies, like “coming of age” stories, where the time period being portrayed is part of what the work of art is trying to get us to reflect on). In a sense, this is what your article is about; but I would just add that it’d be similarly difficult for someone in 2000 to make a coming of age story set in 2000; it’d be difficult for someone in 1970 to make a coming of age story set in 1970. Setting works of art in different time periods allows you extract certain salient things from that time period AND the time period that the work is produced in (and perhaps even viewed in, years and decades after the work was produced)–or to push certain things about the present into the background.

    The second point is just a broader one about how works of art typically function. I don’t want to boil this point down to suspension of disbelief, because that refers to something that (in my mind) is different; but works of art almost always exclude, exaggerate, downplay, and so forth. I mean, I’ve almost never had a conversation in my life that sounds like the conversation in a movie. This isn’t to say that the conversations portrayed in movies aren’t realistic; it just means that works of art oftentimes function by excluding things that aren’t central to the narrative, so things are in some sense beautified, simplified, or transfigured. And that’s why I see no reason for why a (good and/or realistic) coming of age story set in 2013 would have to involve someone surfing the web for hours.

    • razibkhan

      And that’s why I see no reason for why a (good and/or realistic) coming of age story set in 2013 would have to involve someone surfing the web for hours.

      well, there are limits to suspension. sometimes there were periods when i was thinking “look the fucking information up!!!” that’s what any normal person would do. but no one in this movie did. so i inferred that it was set decades ago (and the lack of cell phones).

  2. andrew oh-willeke

    “But could the clever and mannered repartee so central to Stillman’s seminal Metropolitan even be plausible today?*”

    I can’t say if it is plausible in 2013, but I know people who live in a world very much like that one in the 1990s, decades after the setting of the excellent film.

    The insular Northeastern upper class snob world is smaller than it used to be and not quite so well insulated from the high merit scions of the middle class, but this world still existed in the 1990s and had changed less than one would have thought by then.

    As circumstantial evidence that this world still exists, quite a substantial share of the teen fiction market in the twenty-teens is still set in worlds like that where people still do have those kinds of conversations and live these kinds of lives with minor accommodations to modernity. The conversations you hear from the next table over in Nantucket are not the same as the ones you hear in hip neighborhood gathering places in Seattle or Denver.

  3. Spike Gomes

    This made me wonder, since I came of age in the same period, has there been any retrospective movies or novels about that time period that focus on the general sense of existing then (as opposed to a historical event)?

  4. BDoyle

    It may be important to think of who the intended audience for these films is. To someone in his 30s or 40s, a coming-of-age film set in 2013 is just not going to connect as deeply as one set in a past they remember. It sounds like Mud stirred you that way. Check back in 20 years, and there may be coming-of-age movies (or whatever replaces movies) about 2013.

    hehe, a coming-of-age movie set in 1990, seems to an old man like me like it was set in the future, in a way. My family did not even have a television until I was about 8 or so.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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