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Coming of age in American cinema: Modern youth films as genre

Matthew P Schmidt, University of Massachusetts Amherst


An examination of fictional feature films produced in the United States between the mid-1950s to the end of the 1990s. The author argues that youth films comprise a genre of late twentieth-century American cinema, and that they reconstitute significant narrative and thematic characteristics of the novelistic Bildungsroman and its modern literary variants, the childhood initiation tale and the coming-of-age or the rites-of-passage story. The genre of modern youth films includes not only teen entertainments but also social problem films and more personal, quasi-autobiographical works by modern directors. Overall, youth films commonly dramatize situations and events that bear upon the child's initiation into new domains of psychosocial experience and the adolescent's and postadolescent's encounters with the pleasures and perils of modern life, thereby taking up the leitmotif of identity formation that is typically associated with twentieth-century literary fiction, autobiography and stage drama. A further argument is that the genre of youth films reflects the culturally and aesthetically eclectic character of contemporary American cinema. As a mass medium the American cinema promotes the cultural fantasies of a commercialistic society; but as an art form it shares with modern fiction and drama a capacity for social criticism, irony, and self-reflexivity. The study explores these dual faces of contemporary cinema by analyzing it's representations of American youth as symbols of generational and social change. Three significant phases in the history of youth films are discussed: Its cultural origins in youth melodramas of the 1950s; the ideologically revisionist films of the American Film Renaissance made between 1967 and 1977; the expanding range of subjects and themes in the genre during the period of the American Independent Film Movement from 1987 through 2000. Special emphasis is given to the theme of memory in youth films; the genre's multi-ethnic subjects and perspectives; and the impact of modern film aesthetics on film genre theory.

Subject Area

Motion Pictures|American literature|American studies

Recommended Citation

Schmidt, Matthew P, "Coming of age in American cinema: Modern youth films as genre" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056276.