coming of age

READ THE WORLD – Brunei: Written in Black by K.H. Lim

A snapshot of a few days in the life of ten-year-old Jonathan Lee, attending the funeral of his Ah Kong, or grandfather, and still reeling from the drama of his mother leaving for Australia and his older brother getting kicked out of the house and joining a rock band. Annoyed at being the brunt of his father’s pent-up anger, Jonathan escapes his grandfather’s wake in an empty coffin and embarks on a journey through the backwaters of Brunei to bring his disowned brother back for the funeral and to learn the truth about his absent mother.

Jonathan as a character could be equal parts interesting and infuriating at times. I do tend to struggle reading books from a child’s point of view and with Jonathan he seemed far more confident and surer of himself than the average ten-year-old. He does make brash decisions and argues with his siblings and cousin like any child would but sometimes he came across as older than his years with his ability to talk himself out of (and into) a lot of situations. Then there’s the times when he just seems incredibly bitter about everything he’s got going on in life. Some of it seems like a fair thing to be bitter about like how his father won’t talk about his mother and how he keeps missing her phone calls. Other time’s though it’s like that fatalistic attitude that teenagers have turned up to the max – I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a dramatic ten-year-old.

The adventure Jonathan goes on to find his older brother who might hold the key to be able to contact their mother is fun one. Just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong but Jonathan never stops trying to achieve his goal. He’s got this single-minded determinedness that’s impressive.

As an atheist (though I was christened a Catholic) I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the descriptions of Ah Kong’s funeral and the various traditions that Jonathan and the rest of the family had to take part in. The funeral is a Chinese one and there’s mentions of another character having been to Malay funerals but not Chinese ones, showing how there’s different tradition in each cultures funeral and that Brunei as a country is a mix of different people with different heritages, which was interesting.

Written in Black is a quick and easy book to read with an engaging story that keeps you turning the page. The plotline about Jonathan’s absent mother isn’t really given a satisfactory resolution though – or much of a resolution to be honest. In some ways it feels like his mother is avoiding him rather than his three other siblings and it’s sad there’s never really an explanation for that or anything to show that she cares about Jonathan just as much as her other children. Besides from that, it’s a fast-paced and decent coming of age story and Jonathan certainly does seem to mature a lot in such a short space of time. 3/5.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye

Translated by Ernest Jones and James Kirkup.

A coming-of-age memoir about Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Koroussa, Guinea. Laye recounts his mother’s supernatural powers, his father’s prestige as a goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood which is marked with rituals. As he gets older, he must choose between his home and his academic talents which could lead him far from his family.

The Dark Child is a very quick and easy read. As it’s a memoir it’s written in the first person and it’s written quite simply, in part presumably because the narrator in question is a young child for most of it – the book ends when he is about eighteen. Camara Laye grew up in the 1930s in a village and he was one of the first in his family to go to school. He grew up experiencing the culture and traditions of his family and people but also started to embrace the slowly encroaching modern world.

There’s one chapter that’s all about when he was circumcised when he was about twelve or thirteen and how that was the moment he, and the other boys, became men. It was interesting but surprising as I just presumed that if a child was going to be circumcised it happened when they were a baby, not when they were prepubescent. The rituals he and the other boys experienced were a huge part of life in their village and while they didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen to them, they knew other boys (or young men) who had gone through it, including their own fathers.

It was interesting to see these rituals from both an outsider and insiders’ perspective. As while most of The Dark Child felt like a present narrative from the eyes of a child, there were moments when Laye would reflect on events as an adult and explain things that he had found out since he experienced them as a child. Things that seemed like magic and real as a child were then explained and were not so scary once he found out how certain things happened. But, as he did go away from home for school as he got older, there were something’s about the traditions that he never learnt the truth about.

This, and other moments like that, shows how embracing modernity can be a double-edged sword. While family may encourage a child to take the opportunities that they didn’t have, it can mean they lose out on learning things that are traditional and part of their community’s history. The Dark Child was an interesting coming-of-age story and how it blends superstition with education shows there’s value in both for people. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Fourteen-year-old Beka and her best friend Toycie (who’s seventeen) are on the cusp of adulthood. They have family, school and boys to contend with as their home and everyone they know have to deal with the political upheaval as Belize strives towards independence.

Beka Lamb is set in the early 1950s and at this point Belize was a British colony. Throughout the novel there’s mentions of different political parties, how products coming from different countries mean different things, and Beka’s grandmother is heavily involved and up to date with the meetings that are happening in town. I knew nothing of Belize’s history before reading Beka Lamb and the way the politics of the country are interwoven in the story made things easy to understand and gave context to the reasons why characters said and did certain things. Having the story be from Beka’s point of view meant that there was almost a naivety to it at times as she had a lot of growing up to do.

As well as the political upheaval Beka’s family are living through there’s also how the Catholic church is a dominating presence in their lives – especially Beka and Toycie’s as the school they go to is run by nuns. The influence the women at the school have over them and the wider society can’t be underestimated. When Beka’s father asks them for help or even understanding when a situation arises, they refuse saying it’s a slight upon the school and their values.

The friendship between Beka and Toycie is the really heart of this story. Even though there’s three years between them they are really close and help each other in different ways. Toycie can help Beka with her school work while Beka will be a sometimes-reluctant alibi when Toycie wants to sneak out to see a boy. The differences in their homelives are glaring but also shows how strong their friendship is as there’s no resentment from Toycie. Beka lives with her parents, young brothers and her grandmother and while not well-off they don’t struggle financially. Toycie on the other hand lives with her aunt and she does struggle to provide for Toycie and is clearly living below the poverty line.

Beka Lamb is a pretty standard coming of age story; Beka tries to find her voice, do well in school, and stop lying. Having this story set in Belize and in a time of political and social upheaval adds extra layers to Beka’s story and while some thing’s are universal, others are deeply personal. 3/5.

REVIEW: Moxie (2021)

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy Vivian (Hadley Robinson) finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution.

I read and reviewed Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu way back in 2017 and I equally had high hopes for the film and was apprehensive as I liked the book so much. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed the film and I think it’s generally one of the best book to movie adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Moxie is a coming age story that focuses on girls finding their voices and learning to stand up for themselves, rather than being all about a formative love interest. While Vivian is the one to almost unwittingly start this feminist revolution in her school, she is far from the only girl who has something to say. With the arrival of the zine Vivian finds herself with a whole new group of friends, all girls who are tired of the status quo and they each bring ideas of what they could do next to make their voices heard.

Vivian is a great character. She’s the kind of girl who’d always been quiet and just kept her head down but once she started paying attention, she quickly gets frustrated by how girls are treated at her school. Vivian is inspired by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s not afraid to stand up for herself when popular jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) will not stop harassing her and by the double standards when Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is told her wearing a tank top is against the school dress code, but the boy sat next to her wearing practically the same thing isn’t. Vivian is fallible, she makes mistakes as her rage at what’s going on often targets the wrong people and she’s learning about what being a feminist means and inclusivity as she goes. Vivian’s shocked when her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) points out the privilege she has compared to her as the child of immigrants who have sacrificed a lot for her. Slowly Vivian learns while there are universal challenges facing women, there are ones she’d have no knowledge or experience of due to her upbringing.

Moxie is very aware of what’s been happening in the real world. You hear snippets of new stories about the #MeToo movement in the background and the English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) finds it difficult to say or do the right thing as a man and an authority figure when the girls start standing up for themselves and asking “difficult” questions. While that scene is used for comedic effect, it shows how awkward and difficult some find talking about these things because they have, unfortunately, been the norm for so long.

Moxie is a film with so much heart. It might stumble a bit in the third act, but then again so does Vivian, and it’s perhaps not as revolutionary for an older audience but for young people it’s a film that can prompt discussions and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Also, so much of this film is about girls supporting girls and the different relationships between friends, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see this quite diverse group of friends supporting each other. Moxie is fun, funny and inspiring and to top it off it has a killer soundtrack. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Morocco: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Nineteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki grew up in a one-room home with his mother down the stinking alleys of Casablanca. He’s always dreamed of escape and then one day, when the father he presumed was dead turns out to be very much alive and very wealthy, Youssef is whisked away from the slums to the luxurious life of Casablanca’s elite. But as he leaves the poverty of his childhood behind, he finds some harsh truths and difficulties he must face.

Secret Son is a traditional coming of age story as Youssef grows a lot as a person as he explores who he is and where he’s come from. Once he finds out about his father, Youssef is quick to leave all he’s known to live what he feels is a better life. He leaves his mother and his friends and moves to a new apartment where every one of his whims are catered for as his father promises him many new things. While Youssef can be criticised for dumping those who had card about him for so long, chapters or passages from other characters points of view show how the people surrounding him, including his mother and his friends, have lied to him many times.

Whereas his mother wants Youssef to get a good education and go to university to better himself, he lacks the drive or ambition to do that. especially once he learns who his father is. Once Youssef and his father get to know one another, Youssef doesn’t see the point of studying as his father can just get him a good job on his word alone. Once again proving the phrase, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Youssef is very naïve really. He’s dreamed of a better life for so long that when he gets that opportunity, he never questions what it might cost him.

Secret Son has a good mix of personal and political drama and it takes the time to examine how the two can overlap. Youssef is Muslim and as he grows up in the slums, he becomes aware of a political party that make a lot of promises to the people who live there. At first, they seem to be a force for good but as time goes on corruption is clear on both sides of the political spectrum. When Yousef’s friends begin to work for the party, Youssef gets tangled up in plans bigger than himself.

Another major aspect of Secret Son is the class divide. Youssef might go from the slums to a penthouse, but he never really fits in with the rich life, and when he visits his mother and friends, he no longer fits there either. The sad thing is that Youssef doesn’t seem to notice how after experiencing his father’s wealth, he no longer fits in either class. The novel definitely doesn’t shy away from the realities of Casablanca and how peoples lives are so different to one another even when they live just a few streets apart.

Secret Son is a very engaging and easy to read book. The writing is simple yet never juvenile and Youssef makes a frustrating, complicated and interesting main character. 4/5.

REVIEW: Unicorn Store (2017)

Kit (Brie Larson) is trying, and in her eyes failing, to be an adult. Her passion for art and glitter is almost snuffed out as she gets a temp job and feels her parents are constantly comparing her to more successful people her age. But then she receives a mysterious invitation to The Store, where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who gives her the chance to fulfil her childhood dreams.

Brie Larson’s directorial debut is assured, colourful and magical. From the very first scene, the way characters faces are framed give you no choice but to experience with them what they’re feeling. The use of colour and glitter throughout is wonderful and Kit’s wardrobe is just the right blend of childish and mature.

Because that’s where Kit is stuck. She’s an artist with dreams of magic and colour but the “real world” doesn’t see the value in such things. She’s a twenty-something that’s now having her coming-of-age story as she goes through that dilemma a lot of young people have – should she try and be a “proper grown up” or should she still try and follow her dreams, even if they seem out there.

The script is funny and genuine and it’s due to both the script and Larson’s performance that Kit never becomes unlikeable. She’s strong-willed and sometimes selfish, but she also apologies when she has a temper-tantrum and is friendly and kind. Kit can come across very naïve, firstly because of the promises the Salesman makes are truly fantastical, but also due to her low self-esteem and the fact she’s never been in the workplace before she can’t figure out if her boss is harassing her or not. A simple yet brilliant moment was when Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a hardware store worker who Kit pays to help her achieve her dream, states that what her boss is doing is wrong. Virgil and Kit’s friendship is so sweet, and their conflict comes from Kit being obsessed with the seemingly impossible, and not appreciating what she has in her family and friends.

Kit is a messy human who’s trying to figure out what she wants from life, and when life gets hard, she reverts to chasing the dreams of her childhood. But it’s seeing how she starts to understand who she is and what she wants that’s truly touching.

The basis of Unicorn Store’s story is weird but the themes it has, figuring out who you are, learning to love oneself and let yourself be loved, keeping the sense of wonder in the world, are universal. Unicorn Store is whimsical and heartfelt and just delightful. It’s a proper laugh-out-loud funny film but then it will also make you cry a lot too. It’s sweet and touching without ever being cringey and Larson really captures all the different sides of someone who is trying to figure themselves out and to be OK with who they are. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sweden: A Fortune Foretold by Agneta Pleijel

Translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Opening in the 1950s in the quiet university town of Lund, Sweden, A Fortune Foretold follows Neta, a shy and intuitive girl who turns to books whenever life gets difficult. When her Aunt Ricky has her fortune told, Neta becomes fascinated with prophesies, fate and what life could be. By thinking of this she starts to make sense of the chaos of her parents failing marriage.

A Fortune Foretold is a story of childhood, and not a particularly happy one. I didn’t realise straightaway but Neta is a stand in for the author Agneta Pleijel and the book is based on her childhood. Throughout the book there’s times when the narrative voice is like the adult Neta, looking back on events with hindsight and giving her thoughts on what happened now.

The language used throughout the book is melancholy, and the words are often more grown up than Neta is at the time. This fits in with the way it feels like an adult is telling the story of her childhood and has a mature way to express what she at ten years old might be feeling. With the use of more complicated language and Neta’s quietness, it feels like she’s constantly out of sync with the rest of her family. Her parents are both outgoing people and as the oldest of three girls, Neta is sometimes too old for them but not old enough to be around adults.

Neither of Neta’s parents seem to particularly like or want their children. They both are selfish in different ways but as it’s largely told from a child’s point of view, it never really passes judgement on it. Instead, that’s just what Neta’s life and parents are like.

A Fortune Foretold is quite sad as it shows how an emotionally neglectful upbringing can have ramifications for a child as they grow up. From a very young age Neta shuts herself off from the world and becomes quite distant towards others and seeing how a parent’s marriage can fall a part due to secrets and lies has a lasting affect in her.

There are some moving scenes in A Fortune Foretold about growing up and family, but it’s quite a slow story and at times the characters do feel flat and is they are just going through the motions. This may because of the way it was told, like someone recounting past events to a listener, so everything had already happened and so there was no suspense or surprises. 3/5.