On the occasion of my nephew Austin’s fourteenth birthday, I’ll offer my favorite “boy movies.” The most prominent theme in such films is, naturally, the “coming of age” mixture of adolescent wonder and terror. New freedoms, new knowledge, new powers, and new responsibilities come—but with less of the old securities and simple, satisfying answers. I have included some “younger” films, as well, because of their quality and nostalgia-invoking ability.
Rob Reiner’s take on Stephen King’s The Body, Stand By Me is perhaps my favorite boy movie. It has a fitting measure of wonder, camaraderie, and melancholy. Growing up involves a certain level of pain and loss, but reminiscing upon one’s youth heightens that sense of temps perdu. As A Christmas Story or The Wonder Years, Stand By Me is an act of such remembering, and this sort of revisiting is always bittersweet. I believe that Nietzsche remarks that man learns suffering through memory—quite a profound observation. At any rate, the movie created eternal enmity between leeches and boys everywhere, and it further taught me the useful phrase, “cheap dime store hood.”
Though geared toward the younger set, Andrew Davis’ Holes might be the most interesting movie on this list. I was shocked by how much I liked it. It has everything that makes for a good boy movie—morality tales, oppressive adults, abundant “life’s not fair” tale telling, musings on class, status, and hierarchy in a child’s world, beautiful landscapes, and blessèd liberation at the end. It also includes rather deep—for a kids’ movie—religious and philosophical signposts. The idea of providence features prominently in the story, and I would further argue that the film plays out Saint Maximus’ understanding of man as microcosm and mediator of the world. Really, it’s a good film.
Danny Boyle’s Millions is set prior to tween concerns—the main character is seven years old—and it is more of a fantasy morality tale than a boy movie. Yet, having somewhat identified with the little guy who has regular conversations with saints—religion captivated me for as long as I can remember—I had to include it.
Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society may be spiritual poison for young men, but I drank it readily before I was wise enough to see its folly. As Socrates tells us, the appetites grow stronger the more that we feed them, and my appreciation of teenage anguish, alienation, and the delights of a young intellectual’s destructive self-pity formed into an permanent feature of my soul long before I was mature enough to see the cancer for what it is. I can thank a young Jesuit mentor for having removed the blinders, but he got to me years after Robin Williams’ character John Keating did. As such, I love the pathos that the movie invokes, though I now marvel how I became such a sucker for soixante-huitard counter-cultural foolishness.
From A.D. 1963, and then from A.D. 1990 . . .
I’ll include the two film adaptations of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies by Peter Brook and Harry Hook because boyhood is not a romanticized Norman Rockwell experience. Men are largely wicked, and children are even more irrational and appetite-driven than men. They may not be as depraved as human beings who have, with more time, sunk ever deeper into vicious mire, but their innocence has more to do with the lack of power and opportunity than with inherent virtue. Both films depict this disturbing trait in mankind with their “boy as naked man” idea wherein human beings, when stripped of tradition, culture, law, and the inherited rules of society, act like beasts. I appreciate the full frontal attack on Rousseauian stupidity.
Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun is more of a war movie boy film. I love its scenery and its amazing soundtrack, which I bought as a kid. I listened to “Suo Gân” hundreds of times growing up. Plus, anything from the Second World War automatically gains a style advantage. The 1930’s and 1940’s were, in my opinion, the last time that the world had good taste.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders is a necessary part of any boy film set. We just need to belong, eh?
Jerome Robbins’ and Robert Wise’s take on West Side Story may be more of a musical Romeo and Juliet romance—naturally hated by boys—but I’ll throw it in, anyway. Its conflict of gang versus gal loyalties is one that has played out billions of times.
Lastly, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause is a painful story—a perfect portrayal of and serving for the privileged youth of the American bourgeoisie who have been materially pampered but spiritually starved. Of course, James Dean’s death a month before the release of the film made it more interesting, in a morbidly tragic way, for its viewers.