Five Beloved Yet Deeply Disturbing Coming-of-Age Films

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Stand By Me's twenty-fifth anniversary has us reminiscing about some unsettling classics.

1. Stand By Me

Rob Reiner's coming-of-age classic Stand By Me celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary next Monday. It's much loved for its depiction of the innocence of childhood, the bittersweet pangs of adolescence, and the enduring bonds of friendship. But it's undeniably much darker than your average coming-of-age movie: as the four go their separate ways, torn apart by the divisive forces of the middle-school caste system, Richard Dreyfuss's narration reveals their tragic fates, leaving the cockles of your heart feeling less warmed than ripped out, torn up, and shit upon. As in many other similarly themed films, the message of Stand By Me seems to be that growing up sucks, but what happens afterwards sucks even harder, which is kind of a grim message for a childhood classic. Here are four other coming-of-age films with remarkably bleak subtexts.  

2. Sixteen Candles

IMDB synopsis: A young girl's (Molly Ringwald) "sweet sixteen" becomes anything but sweet as she suffers from every embarrassment possible.

What it should say: A young girl's (Molly Ringwald) "sweet sixteen" becomes anything but sweet as she falls prey to a kindly date rapist.

Why it's disturbing: Although the lasting popularity of John Hughes' breakthrough film owes a lot to its adorable leading lady, part of its reputation can be attributed to the eternal nice-guy appeal of love interest Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). With his '80s gay-porn-star physique and innocuous, golden-retriever grin, Ryan exemplifies Reagan-era masculinity, to the point that the Washington Post ran an editorial on the twentieth anniversary of the film entitled "Real Men Can't Hold a Candle to Jake Ryan." With all due respect to the Post, that's probably for the best, because by the end of the movie, Jake Ryan turns out to be an unbelievable asshole. After confiding in a geeky underclassman (Anthony Michael Hall) that he's attracted to Sam (Ringwald), Jake allows the freshman to drive his inebriated, barely conscious girlfriend home and have his way with her. Jake then uses his girlfriend's "infidelity," for which she was unable to supply consent, as an excuse to break up with her and hook up with Sam..

Ostensible message: Growing up is tough, but you'll always remember your first love.

Actual message: Growing up is tough, but if you're lucky, you might end up being deflowered by a panty-sniffing rape conspirator with perfect bone structure.


3. Big

IMDB synopsis: When Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body.

What it should say: When Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body, resulting in his statutory rape by a much older woman.

Why it's disturbing: While the presumed psychological duress of aging twenty years overnight might qualify the film as fucked-up, the narrative gets even stranger when Josh has sex with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), a woman more than twice his age. If this scenario doesn't strike you as perverse, imagine an alternate universe in which Big had been made with a twelve-year-old girl instead of a twelve-year-old boy. (Okay, imagine 13 Going On 30 doesn't exist. That shouldn't be too hard.) To make matters worse, Josh ends up brusquely informing Susan that she's just violated an adolescent boy. Following this revelation, he abandons her without so much as offering to pay for her therapy.

Ostensible Message: Growing up is tough — enjoy youth while it lasts.

Actual Message: Growing up is tough, and sex is terrifying and predatory.

4. My Girl

IMDB synopsis: Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky), an eleven-year old girl, experiences life, love, and loss during the summer of 1972.

What it should say: Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky), an eleven-year old girl, is a murderer.

Why it's disturbing: My Girl tells the story of Vada, an adorable, apple-cheeked, eleven-year old who lives with her widowed, funeral-home-owning father (Dan Aykroyd). Because her mother died while giving birth to her, Vada spends most of the film blaming herself for her mother's death and trying to convince her father and his girlfriend (Jamie Lee Curtis) that she herself is dying, which should be enough to give the viewer the sense that this poor girl has maybe inhaled a bit too much formaldehyde.

With no one to look after her, Vada spends her summer acting out like a typical adolescent, throwing tantrums, stealing money from her father and experimenting with her best friend Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin). Her summer of rebellion, however, reaches its tragic denouement when she inadvertently kills Thomas J. by sending him into the woods to look for her lost mood ring, where he has a fatal allergic reaction to a bee sting. Of course, Vada's fear of having murdered her mother comes to fruition, and she is left to shoulder the crushing guilt over her friend's death for the rest of her life.

Ostensible message: Growing up is tough, but the memories of your lost loved ones and the support of your friends and family will help you get through it.

Actual message: Growing up is tough, and you are exactly as guilty as you think you are.



5. Ferris Bueller's Day Off

IMDB synopsis: A high-school wise guy (Matthew Broderick) is determined to have a day off from school, despite the tyrannical principal's attempts to capture him.

What it should say: A charming sociopath (Matthew Broderick) is determined to have a day off from school, despite a long-suffering public servant's attempts to give him an education.

Why it's disturbing: Everyone loves Ferris Bueller the movie, but in retrospect, Ferris Bueller the character is a self-entitled Reaganite brat. Ferris relies on his wit, charm, and arsenal of '80s technology to manipulate his parents into thinking that he's home sick, while he gleefully wreaks havoc on the Chicagoland area, drawing two unwitting accomplices into his web of deceit. Although the three commit a panoply of unlawful acts — destroying Cameron's dad's Ferrari, for one — Ferris's delinquency is secondary to his complete lack of conscience, evidenced by the casual ease with which he disrupts the lives of others. He has no reservations about manipulating his loyal friends, and it's genuinely uncomfortable to watch him play the passive Cameron like one of his crazy-ass Casio synthesizers. The two people savvy enough to see through his shit — principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) — end up getting mauled by a giant Rottweiler and Charlie Sheen, respectively.

By the end of the film, Ferris successfully dupes his parents into thinking that their "little angel" has been sleeping in bed all day, and although we're supposed to applaud him for his cunning, we know he'll spend the rest of his life avoiding the consequences of his actions, probably growing up to be an investment banker ducking indictment for insider trading.

Ostensible message: Life is short, so have fun.

Actual message: Life is short, so get away with as much as possible, regardless of who you have to exploit.