400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Every few months I find myself sitting down for another "coming of age movie." It's taken awhile, but I think I have these things sorted out now. There are essentially three categories. In the first, a young boy befriends a crusty, cynical man -- sometimes a grandfatherly old fellow. The man coaxes the boy out of his shell, and the boy reminds the old man of what it's like to live. Examples include Cinema Paradiso, About a Boy and the new Is Anybody There? In the next category, the boy befriends another boy (or girl) of roughly the same age. The second boy is knowledgeable, outgoing and/or unique and coaxes the first boy out of his shell. Examples include Son of Rambow or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Then we get the "sexual awakening" kind of film, in which the boy falls in love with a grown woman, as in Malena or Mister Foe.
Very often, we also get the romantic version, in which the college-age boy is stuck in his glum shell until a cool and/or wacky girl breaks him out of it, re: Gigantic or Thumbsucker. Some films combine the above elements, such as The Door in the Floor or The Wackness. I could keep spiraling downward into more subgenres with more examples, but I think I've traced all this stuff back to My Life as a Dog (1987), a wonderfully sweet movie that established all the genre rules in stone. Since then, most subsequent movies have been based on this and other movies, and not on anyone's life. Many of the films are set in the 1970s or 1980s so that the filmmaker can think about the music or the clothes from his own childhood, but that's about where it stops.
Francois Truffaut made the ultimate coming-of-age film with The 400 Blows (1959), in that it was based on his own childhood, with no movies getting in the way. There are also no other cutesy characters, no crusty grandfathers or wacky girls. It's all about Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his decisions, his circumstances, his own life. Recently, I've seen a new film that I believe transcends all this genre nonsense and gets back to the core of a coming-of-age film. It's So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain (3 screens), from South Korea. The film starts with one of the genre's conventions: the parent leaves the kids with some other grownup with the promise that they'll be back in time for some important event. But So Yong Kim stops there, using one neat trick: she films her heroines, six-year-old Jin (Hee-Yeon Kim) and four-year-old Bin (Song-Hee Kim), mainly in close-up.
Their entire world consists of what's immediately around them. They may be curious about the grown up world just outside their frame, but they can't fully grasp it. This way, the entire film is placed back in the hands of the children. Their goal is to fill their piggy bank so that their mother will return sooner, and their discoveries on how to do so are entirely charming. And though certain of the genre conventions are predictable the movie's outcome is not. And the big payoff moment, in which all the plot stuff comes together in one small gesture, is passed over as quietly as a whisper. It's achingly beautiful, and it's definitely one of those childhood moments that you'd remember forever and make a movie about.