David Chase's new movie, "Not Fade Away," his first major work since concluding "The Sopranos," tells the story of a thoughtful teenage boy (John Magaro) growing up in New Jersey during the 1960s. Flat December light settles over the film's suburban snowbanks in winter, mountains of leaves clog the gutters in autumn, the Jersey shore beckons in summer. The teen plays in a garage band with an outside chance at fame; he meets a girl who understands him; he runs afoul of his father (James Gandolfini), revealing a generational divide; he discovers the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and, at the movies, Antonioni. "What kind of movie is this?" the boy asks his girlfriend as they slump before "Blow-Up," simultaneously mystified and rocked to the core. "What kind of movie is this?"
David Chase's new movie, "Not Fade Away," his first major work since concluding "The Sopranos," tells the story of a thoughtful teenage boy (John Magaro) growing up in New Jersey during the 1960s. Flat December light settles over the film's suburban snowbanks in winter, mountains of leaves clog the gutters in autumn, the Jersey shore beckons in summer. The teen plays in a garage band with an outside chance at fame; he meets a girl who understands him; he runs afoul of his father (James Gandolfini), revealing a generational divide; he discovers the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and, at the movies, Antonioni. "What kind of movie is this?" the boy asks his girlfriend as they slump before "Blow-Up," simultaneously mystified and rocked to the core.
"What kind of movie is this?"
A coming-of age movie, of course, the most durable type of story we tell in any medium. Even if you never see "Not Fade Away," you have seen "Not Fade Away": Chase's hero loses his innocence, finds his voice, and then (say it with me) nothing was ever the same again. Which is not to say skip it. Familiarity is no crime when the perpetrator is a coming-of-age story: I loved Chase's film unreservedly, choked up several times, silently pledged allegiance to it, as I do with most coming-of-age tales despite their obviousness.
I'm a sucker for them.
You probably are too.
But as for why — that's complicated.
When I asked Blue Balliett, the Chicago-based children's writer, why we love coming-of-age stories even when we know better, she said: "A dream in your 40s is tinged with adult qualifiers, and your early dreams are not weighed down the same way. The (tween) age of the kids I write for, there is so much magic then because it comes without the limitations of an adult perspective. I taught school 10 years and those were the best stories to read. Over and over I saw a light of recognition go on. Even as adults, we never do lose that light."
Which sounded too easy.
When I asked Joe Meno, the Chicago novelist said he also had a weakness for the coming-of-age story ("in a crazy way, beyond criticism and intellect") but explained: "I seriously believe it's an evolutionary thing. Folk and fairy tales tend to be our first experience with these types of stories. Which sets up a pattern for a kind of storytelling you innately pick up on later. For instance, I am a devoted reader of experimental fiction, but I would be lying if I didn't say that coming-of-age stories give me the most pleasure and satisfaction. I think there's almost a biological reason why Harry Potter isn't a bald guy in his 40s trying to be a wizard."
Which sounded too clinical.
When I asked director Paul Feig, co-creator of TV's "Freaks and Geeks" (arguably the best coming-of-age story released in any medium in the past 20 years), he said: "I am such a believer — and this is not a groundbreaking statement or anything — that what happens to us as kids is how we see the world. But when these stories are handled well, it's like a broader public service is being provided. It's like somebody has handed us this story and said, 'Look, this here is a road map and it'll get you through this trying time.'"
Which sounded perfect.
I met Chase for lunch in October. He was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival. We sat in the "Frank Sinatra Booth" at the Pump Room. I asked why he made a coming-of-age movie as his first follow-up to "The Sopranos." He said no, he didn't make a coming-of-age story. I said, wait, of course you did. He said, "Well, people are telling me that." Then he added in his blunt, vaguely taciturn manner: "But I don't particularly like coming-of-age stories, to be honest with you. I knew people would hear about this movie and think, 'Growing up in the '60s? Again? It's been done.' I knew they would picture teenage acid trips and kids finding themselves on the road to Woodstock. But I wanted to show the backwaters of the '60s, where most Americans could be found then. Which reminds me, as coming-of-age films go, I did like 'Breaking Away.'"
"Who doesn't?" I asked.
"Well, I don't normally like those kind of stories because I don't think anyone grows up," he said. "I don't think there is a moment when anyone actually realizes 'Now I am a man' or says 'I must become a man.'" For the record, Chase looks like a guy who was born middle-aged.
His publicist slid into the booth to listen. "Boys never come of age," she said.
"Sure, but in a coming-of-age story," Chase said, "a character always, by the end, is prepared for the journey of their life. Or they learn something about who they really are. Which I guess does happen in this movie …"
The weird thing about coming-of-age stories, I said, is that despite those tropes, those familiar rhythms, dutifully period soundtracks, doe-eyed looks of wonder, I rarely tire of them. Even John Hughes movies, as glib as they become the older you get, I can't help but linger over when I catch them on TV. (I hate to admit this, but seeing "The Breakfast Club" in a movie theater was as transformative as seeing "Star Wars.")
"You've seen a lot of gangster movies, right?" Chase asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"Those never get old," he said. "Why should coming-of-age stories?"
There is one scene in "Not Fade Away" where I cringed: Magaro plays the drummer in a high-school band, and, minutes before they are supposed to perform at a house party, the lead singer accidentally swallows a joint. Magaro steps forward to sing. The band plays "Time Is on My Side." A teenage girl (Bella Heathcote), who later becomes his girlfriend, watches from the edge of the party. The scene is not played as though he is destined to sing or they are fated to be together. It is played as mere circumstance.
So far, so good.
Indeed, most of the band scenes ring pretty true. Chase told me he was a drummer in a high school band that had tensions similar to the tensions in the film: "We practiced a lot, and we talked about instruments and we talked about records, but we never could get it together to play a real gig," he said. "And then when I left for college, my parents sold my drums. I would come home and play cardboard boxes." Finely remembered, clear-eyed details are hallmarks of coming-of-age stories.
Now here's the cringy part: The hero's new girlfriend assures the hero that "Time is on your side."
As coming-of-age stories go, it's not the corniest crime. But it is the one time the film feels self-aware — the one time the characters, despite Chase's protests, seem to recognize that they're in a coming-of-age film.
So perhaps it's telling then that when I spoke with Cameron Crowe recently and asked about coming-of-age stories, he quickly asked if I had seen "Not Fade Away." He said: "I especially love how he captured that moment when a band member steps forward and takes the reins. Then he makes 'Time Is on My Side' a plot line! Which feels so true to these characters. Plus it doesn't dissolve into stereotypes. The thing about coming-of-age stories is that the more personal the stories and vulnerable the characters, the truer the film."
One man's sentimentality is another's reality.
By chance, around Thanksgiving I found myself flipping around cable and stopping on Crowe's "Almost Famous." Though the details are supposedly truer to Crowe's background than Chase's details are to his own New Jersey youth, Crowe's story feels something like a loose adaptation of "Pinocchio," a bright-eyed fantasia shot in the golden hues of a young boy led happily astray. It's the coming-of-age film for the well-adjusted optimist. "Almost Famous" is as unabashedly warm and idealistic as Chase's movie is mostly dyspeptic. Still, they arrive at the same place.
Their characters suffer degrees of growing pains inflicted by their love of music. Both must shed a degree of earnestness to grow up. But the future for Chase's hero is cloudy. Sky's the limit for Crowe's.
That's why "Freaks and Geeks" will perhaps outlive both these films. It's in the middle, less committed to a point of view: It's earnest, it's dyspeptic, it's corny, it's angry — it's like a young adult trying on appearances and ideas — rangy, messy and painful. "But the flip side to relatable," said Feig about his show, which was canceled in 2000 after a dozen episodes, "is that people don't necessarily want to relate or to remember things that happened at that age. Which I think was our big downfall. I thought people would want to see the worst parts of their teenage years, that it would be cathartic. Incredibly, not true! It's sad, because to be in touch with who you are you have to understand what tormented you. Therapy 101, really."
That reminded me.
I asked Feig if he had seen "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Stephen Chbosky's recent movie adaptation of his 1999 novel, the kind of movie (and book) explicitly designed to serve as a kind of loose blueprint for getting through adolescence. He loved it. I did too. But what, I asked, did he think of those sunroof scenes?
"Perks" tells the story of a shy Pittsburgh kid starting his freshman year of high school. At the beginning of the film, and at the end, there are characters who stand up in a sunroof as a car rushes through a tunnel. It looks like the kind of thing characters in a coming-of-age story do. Or is it the self-awareness of characters who have seen a lot of coming-of-age stories and think they're supposed to do this in a coming-of-age story?
"I'm 100 percent with you," Feig said. "Are they doing this because it's a fault of the filmmaker or because coming-of-age stories are so ubiquitous, they're the kind of kids who would do this because they know it's what a quirky coming-of-age kid does when they're in a car with an open sunroof and cool music on the radio? After about a half-hour, I realized it was really very natural: Stephen is really capturing that thing some smart kids have where they are processing the world through images and trying hard to stay cool."
I should mention there are two kinds of coming-of-age stories. The first are detail-oriented, matter-of-fact, often conceived without even the intent of telling a coming-of-age story. "Testing the Current," for instance, author William McPherson's great (and mostly forgotten) coming-of-age novel set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the 1930s (being reissued next month by New York Review of Books Classics). McPherson, now 79, told me: "I remember New Year's Eve 1939 and I remember Pearl Harbor, because after that nothing would ever be the same again, but I never wanted to write anything nostalgic or coming-of-age, because, even as a kid in Sault Sainte Marie, I knew I was not going to live there my whole life. I was not sentimental about it."
The other kind are self-conscious, self-aware. Like "Perks of Being a Wallflower."
I called Chbosky.
The movie, like the book, he said, is intended as something of a warm homage to the coming-of-age story, "but more of a balanced approach than the typical example, a balance between the fun and the serious stuff while understanding to respect both the fun and the serious stuff."
He said: "I have dealt with this subject for so long I've often wondered why Americans make so many of these things — John Hughes, 'My So-Called Life,' 'Freaks and Geeks,' 'A Separate Peace.' There are foreign examples, 'The 400 Blows,' 'My Life as a Dog.' But we make so many more. Maybe because we don't have as many rites of passage as older countries. … But I also think because Americans are isolationists and individualists this is a way we remind ourselves that even in our individuality we are not alone."
As for the sunroof thing, it's "about a spiritual rebirth," he said.
So, then asked if the characters are aware of what they going through, if they're self-conscious of the tropes, he said: "To quote 'Changes' from David Bowie, 'They're quite aware of what they're going through.'"
Which, incidentally, is part of the epigraph at the front of "The Breakfast Club."
Julia Weiss would know this.
An iO Chicago performer and playwright, last year she had a hit at the Conservatory on Lincoln Avenue. It was called "Tammy: A Coming of Age Story About a Girl Who Is Part T-Rex." It came out of growing up and taking cues from coming-of-age stories. "I had a strong sense of childhood because of 'Freaks and Geeks' and 'Breakfast Club.' Those things told me it was a cool thing I was going through and I thought everyone should stop pretending being young sucks. It was like I had put myself into these shows and was acting. I thought I was awesome. My peers thought I was weird, and they were right. Still, as horrible as I was, I was most honestly myself when I was trying to be like coming-of-age characters. It also gave me good material."
And nothing would be the same ever again.