The loss of inocence and the “Coming of age” stories are one of the most used trope often depicted by Hollywood on the mainstream cinema. It’s not uncommon to find movies that circle around that specific moment on every teen life when they transition from being an innocent child to become an empowered adolescent.
Being such a significant time in someone’s life, this rite of passagehas a lot of symbolisms embedded right into its core. Symbols that some movies like to represent in numerous ways, like with a loss of virginity, or with a big, introspective and literal journey across the country, or even with a Prom dance. You see, the coming of age is something inevitable and very profitable for Hollywood, and this year wasn’t the exception.
From a handful of movies that premiered in 2016, I think that three of them really stand out from the others: The Neon Demon, Nerve and The Closet Monster, not only because I consider them to be actually good or because I’m pretty sure they harnessed excelent narrative techniques to tell their story, but mostly because their deep understanding on adolescence and the transition through this rite of passage.
Of course, each one of them treats different and interesting subjects. Whereas The Neon Demon made a strong argument against the beauty culture, Nerve tried to talk about the dangers of technology and Closet Monster stood against homophobia. But they also depicted certain elements of the coming of age very similarily: using neon lights as a narrative and symbolic tool to reference it.
All of three of them have an innocent character living on a bubble as a protagonist. It isn’t until later when they have to face reality when the loss of innocence happens, along with the appearence of perfunctory neon lights on the scene as a part of their environment to aknowledge it.
The Neon Demon presents the perfect epitome of innocence and virginity with Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young model from a small town navigating through the difficulties and superficialites of Los Angeles. When we first met her, we see a teen struggling to cope with the reality she is living in while trying to accomplish her dream in order to succeed on the beauty bussiness.
Nerve has the incorrupted Vee (Emma Roberts) as its protagonist. An A-grade student looking for some emotion that can help her to break free from the routine she has put herself into for the last years, trying to be the perfect girl she always imagine would be whilst making an effort to get the attention from the boy she is in love with.
Finally, Closet Monster introduced us to Oscar (Connor Jessup), a guy who has always lived under the shadow of his homophobic dad, that is trying to understand what his role in the world is and where does he fits in it.
They, like every other teen in the world, are looking for meaning and substance in their lives. The three of them are facing adulthood like fishes out of water: navigating through a sea of emotions and insecurities, but with a lot of curiosity to push them forward.
The Neon Demon is, by far, the most blunt approach to adolescence by using neon lights as a device to understand the coming of age experience. Its director even blatantly compares this blossom in life with a demon transformation. The more Jesse becomes part of this “adult” world, the more demonized her look and her attitude is. She surrounds herself with neon lights with each step she takes ahead.
Jesse’s first confrontation with her own beliefs -a very innocent ones, I must say- happens when Ruby (Jena Malone), one of the makeup artist she works with, takes her to meet another models to a party. There, she realizes what really she is getting herself into, when the girls start to criticize her. From the very beginning of the movie, she feels overwhelmed but decided to triumph on that city that constantly puts beauty and lust before humanity. Of course, the scene ends with Jesse watching with an offish glare a model show surrounded by neon lights.
But its not until her first runway when she fully embraces her demon-ness . As the industry begins to consume her inner light, she slowly starts to feel that she belongs there. She feels empowered and purposeful to be the best model in town, and she doesn’t care about anything or anyone. This realization comes along with a beautiful scene where Jesse watchs her reflection looking right at her in fully neon lights.
Nerve, on the other hand, approaches to teen angst and insecurity by tackling it with technology obsession. Vee it’s the typical adolescent looking for an adventure and a change of routine. This, of course, appears in form of a daring app that challenge its users to do risky things in change for money and a bunch of memories to gloat over.
Vee’s curiosity comes across like something natural and organic as all her classmates are experiencing the same feelings of excitement of using the app. At the beginning of the movie she is often surrounded by dim lights and obscure environments, but when she’s ready to accept her first challenge, the illumination changes.
As she enters a restaurant to kiss a stranger, the neon lights that decorate the place begin to shine. In fact, each and every one of the dares that Vee and Ian (Dave Franco) perform, are surrounded by bright neon lights, getting brighter and brighter as the challenges increase their difficulty.
To Nerve the coming of age means not only to embarce and confront your worst fears, but to live through them and not under the shadow they could cast above your life. Curiosity is, after all, the fire that ignites the neon lights of adolescence.
Closet Monster reflects a lot upon acceptance and sexuality on teenage years. Oscar has always known that something is off in his life, that something’s missing. Living with a homophobic dad and with the awful idea of an absent mom is not easy for him. All of the scenes with his dad are surrounded by opaque illumination that casts a shadow on both of them.
It isn’t until he meets Wilder (Aliocha Schneider) when his surroundings start to change. As Oscar begins to accept his inner thoughts, his character commences to walk through bright places, and when he is finally ready to accept who he is and confess his love to his friend, the neon lights appear in form of party decorations. This type illumination is, after all, the representation of his desires.
If this odd cinematographic technique has something to teach us, is that, in order to turn on the neon lights that could surround our life, we need to be in contact with oneself and one’s needs. If we want to achieve our goal of moving from childhood to adolescence, we must embrace curiosity to outgrow our self-imposed limits.