All Grown Up
By Eileen G’Sell

In its 40-year history, Sundance has premiered no small number of iconic coming-of-age films, many of which effectively launched a director’s career: Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Todd Solondz’s blackhearted take on a middle school outcast; Thirteen (2003), Catherine Hardwicke’s gritty account of a teenager’s fall from grace; or Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical hit The Squid and the Whale (2005). The coming-of-age genre appeals to emerging filmmakers for a number of reasons—chief among them, perhaps, for being loosely based on formative personal experience that remain relatively fresh in their memories.

This year’s sheer volume—and variety—of English-language films probing the process of growing up seems noteworthy. Five films in particular capture the lives of teenage girls from markedly different vantages, and each was written and directed by a woman either making her first or second film. The youngest filmmaker, Molly Manning Parker, is 30; the oldest, Laura Chinn, is 37. They are from Canada, Britain, and across the United States. Their heroines lack sexual experience with men and, on the whole, couldn’t care less about that. Half of their heroines also identify as queer, and, in what feels a refreshing change from so many coming-of-age movies, coming out is a non-event. They are already, presumably, out, with little fanfare, their queerness utterly normalized.

Onscreen bildungsromans tend to attract audiences, but rarely achieve gravity in the same way that films probing “adult” issues do, in part because of a tendency to flatten out adolescents—and adolescence—into a collage of traits risibly pathetic. Chubby nerd, meet shallow babe. Shallow babe, meet less shallow best friend with good taste in music. Thankfully, none of these five films kowtow to these archetypes, though some are more nuanced, and more compelling, than others.

The film that has received the most buzz, Megan Park’s My Old Ass, presents the most unusual premise of the bunch, yet arguably follows the most conventional narrative, despite the main character, Elliott (Maisy Stella), identifying from the very first scene as a very horny lesbian. During a mushroom trip with her best friends, Ro (Kerrice Brooks) and Ruthie (Maddie Ziegler), on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Elliott is confronted with her 39-year-old self, who suddenly appears in the woods in the form of Aubrey Plaza. Part of what makes the conceit work is that Plaza has a knack for seeming plausibly high at all times. Moreover, what 18-year-old girl wouldn’t want her future self to look, and be, so cool—aside from the fact that she’s, to younger Elliott’s dismay, a lowly PhD student? The interactions between Elliott and her older version are some of the most delightful parts of the film; eager to learn about what her life will look like, Elliott barrages her older self (whose contact info she enters under “My Old Ass” on her smartphone) with a series of questions. While the response is generally vague, one specific form of advice comes in two words: “Avoid Chad.”

When a “Chad” shows up a few days later at a lake where Elliott skinny-dips, the central conflict of the film dips into waters that can feel a bit trite. Hired by Elliott’s parents to work on their Ontario cranberry farm, Chad (Percy Hynes White) is an androgynous dreamboat of a high order. He speaks fluent French, can fix an outboard engine, and aspires to do cancer research someday. Elliott starts to question whether she’s actually as “gay” as she thought she was. The movie’s best scene is arguably her second trip on mushrooms, meant to summon her older self, in which she hallucinates that she is Justin Bieber performing “One Less Lonely Girl” to Chad, who is dressed as a tween girl in ribbons and sparkly tee. The scene flouts gender norms and embraces the nostalgic camp of Bieber nation, while also being laugh-out-loud funny. The issue with the film isn’t that it depicts a young woman wrestling with not being only into girls, but that it narratively climaxes on Elliott losing her “dick sex” virginity in a scene reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon in Cruel Intentions. Based on the wisdom of Older Elliott, Chad turns out to be her one true love, and the warning to avoid him has nothing to do with him being male or, for that matter, having any character flaws (at one point, Older Elliott actually says, “Chad is perfect”). As much as younger queer-identifying viewers praised the film for its “authentic representation” at the premiere, I left with a nagging feeling that this was a more progressive 2024 version of Chasing Amy. Do we need another film in which a bold queer young woman just needs to meet the right guy?

In a more pensive vein, India Donaldson’s debut Good One follows another queer heroine, Sam (Lily Collias), during a weekend hike in the Catskills with her workaholic father (James LeGros) and his schlubby, woebegone friend Matt (Danny McCarthy). Like Elliott, Sam’s queerness is no big deal, and her uncle’s kneejerk assumption that she’s a vegetarian is played for mild laughs. Unlike voluble Elliott, Sam’s central conflict—with the entitlement and emotional buffoonery of her male Boomer elders—is primarily conveyed through Collias’s acutely demonstrative face. While ostensibly their backpacking trip is about basking in the glory of the outdoors, it’s more an opportunity for the two men to vent about their jobs, wives, or lack thereof. Sam’s often treated as little more than patient listener, exposing how very little her father and uncle actually know her, or how disinterested they are in getting to know her in the first place.

As the awkward trio lug their packs through sun and rain, moments of mild tension erupt and diffuse at a slow, steady pace. Until Matt crosses a line that, for the entire film, we didn’t suspect needed to be drawn in the first place. So shocking—while horribly believable—is this moment that audible gasps rippled through the audience. At the same time, Donaldson avoids the clichéd aftermath we’ve come to expect from the coming-of-age genre. Instead of desperately running through the woods, tears streaming down her face, Sam quietly determines the best way to assert herself and her dignity to two men who remain shamelessly aloof. The film’s potent final shot is a poetic exercise in restraint, in keeping with the film’s image-driven examination of gender, violation, and sexuality.

How to Have Sex, the first feature by British director Molly Manning Walker, bears an ironic name given the unsettling, barely consensual sex that takes place onscreen. Joining her friends Skye and Em for a pre-graduation holiday at a raucous Grecian resort, Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the lone virgin, soon sets her sights on heavily tattooed Badger (Shaun Thomas) as He Most Likely to Deflower Her. As it turns out, Badger’s best mate Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) has his own agenda, one of which no one seems to be remotely aware. As the girls binge-drink their way through practically every party context, Tara becomes Paddy’s target for her lack of carnal know how.

While her heart-shaped face, petite frame, and “Angel” pendant feel too on-the-nose, Tara is terrifyingly relatable as a casualty of sexual predation. She does not refuse Paddy when he disrobes her on a stretch of sand and cursorily asks, “Yeah?” But she’s right to feel that the entire event is sullied by a lack of concern and desire. “On the beach?” squeals Em upon discovering where her friend has had sex. “Sounds really romantic.” “No,” is Tara’s soft response, more worried about disappointing her friend than the fact that her first time was worse than disappointing. How to Have Sex doesn’t label any of her sexual interactions as rape, inviting the viewer to consider the factors that rob Tara of full autonomy. Most notably is how Walker explores the ways in which young women can, in the name of sex positivity, pressure each other into situations that could put them in harm’s way. The movie doesn’t blame Tara’s friends for what happens to her, but it also holds them accountable for blithely ignoring the stakes of her innocence.

Another British film, the short Essex Girls by Yero Timi-Biu, flips the sexual victim narrative: the good girl so afraid of being bad that she forfeits the chance to befriend those who share her racial background. When Bisola, one of few Black students at her private prep school, is invited by rebel classmate Ashlee (Corinna Brown) to attend a London party, she initially balks. “You’re not like her,” one of Bisola’s popular white friends says, clearly alluding to Ashlee’s lower-class background, despite their shared African descent. When Bisola is finally convinced to attend and gets a bit tipsy on the dance floor, she embarrasses herself in front of Malachi (Daniel Adeosun) the handsome young man she’s clearly crushing on. But instead of social suicide or a decline in academic performance, instead her wild night out leads to…a happier, more fulfilling life. Timi-Biu offers a welcome riposte to tired “slippery slope” warnings that might especially afflict young women from immigrant communities of color. She’s a director to look out for.

American filmmaker Laura Chinn’s debut feature Suncoast also engages matters of race and class, if more subtly in service to universal themes of mortality and loss. Suncoast chronicles the months in which Doris (Nico Park), a biracial 17-year-old living with her single mother Kristine (Laura Linney), endures the final, vegetative stage of her brother Max’s life once he’s entered hospice, the name of which lends the film its misleadingly cheerful title. Based partly on its director’s experience growing up in Florida during the Terri Schiavo controversy, the film could have easily devolved into a predictable faceoff between frumpy prolife conservatives and stylish liberal teens. Instead, Chinn’s script and the actors who inhabit her characters fully manage to make every character empathetic and relatable. Neglected by her anxious, financially strapped mom, Doris longs to be popular, drive a car, go to prom, and, like any girl her age, be “normal.” At a nearby diner, she befriends a man named Paul (Woody Harrelson), one of the many activists protesting the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube outside Max’s hospice, still grieving the sudden loss of his wife two years earlier.

What keeps the film from sinking under the weight of its content is the giddiness of Doris’s newfound friendships with the popular kids at her Christian high school, who initially bring her to party in her parentless, ramshackle home. Where many scripts might cynically render these libertine youngsters as vapid freeloaders, Suncoast acknowledges the compassion that can coexist with self-absorption, delivering some of the most hilarious sendups of early aughts teen culture I’ve seen. In today’s age of helicopter moms and dads, the movie also honors the unlikely merits of inattentive parenting: Doris figures out who she is on her own terms, taking her own risks. As selfish as some of them might be, it’s impossible not to root for her.

In so many ways, each of these teenage heroines is not just sympathetic, but representative of how radically the genre has evolved. I’ve long believed that if you’re living life right, you’re always “coming of age”—expanding your boundaries, determining who you want to be, and why. I still gravitate toward this genre not only to understand shifting generational ethos, but to better grasp how my own set of choices as a woman—in adolescence as well as adulthood—have been largely dictated by factors beyond my control. Volition, desire, and self-worth are all at the heart of what each of these Sundance films aims to celebrate—regardless of its protagonist’s race, class, or sexual identity—and this gives me hope that, for young women today, “coming of age” need not necessitate the disavowal of ambition or resignation to patriarchal gender norms that for so long have held everybody back.