Beyond the White Coming-of-Age Story

Light-skinned Tomás struggles with his darker-skinned brothers and his identity in the Mexican coming-of-age drama “Güeros.” Via Kino Lorber.
Light-skinned Tomás struggles with his darker-skinned brothers and his identity in the Mexican coming-of-age drama “Güeros.” Via Kino Lorber.

It seems we’ve been hearing and talking about diversity and racism 24/7 — in classes, at work, on social media, and yes, in movies too. Movies that touch on the subject of race usually have it as the main theme. But for many movies, race doesn’t exist at all.

A year ago this month, everyone raved about the Richard Linklater coming-of-age drama “Boyhood.” Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, the Oscar favorite captured the life of young Texas family with a simple documentary-style feel. Left and right, critics universally exclaimed: That is THE life cycle in its purest!

Except, that is, for critic Imran Siddique, who raised an important question in an essay for The Atlantic: Whose reality is it, anyway? Why does coming-of-age on the big screen almost always translate to coming-of-age-while-White?

The next Filmworks presentation at the Tower Theatre on Aug. 14 is “Güeros,” whose title refers to light-skinned Mexicans who may have it easier than their less European-looking neighbors. The coming-of-age movie focuses on the realistic story of non-White protagonists growing up in Mexico City, young men of color whose lives are still affected by Whiteness. It joins a small but acclaimed group of coming-of-age films that are not about White males.

Highly anticipated after “Boyhood,” the French drama “Girlhood” provides a contrast, making at attempt to prove Linklater’s idea wrong. It not only moves us from the U.S. to France, but also from the world and problems of the White majority to a completely different reality of young African girls growing up in France’s projects. We see little family structure, little educational system, and the severe lack of acknowledgement, all of which find a place in our society more often than we’d like.

Back in 2003, its first season, Fresno Filmworks screened the romantic drama “Raising Victor Vargas.” Writer and director Peter Sollett centers the story around a teenage Dominican American living in New York’s Lower East Side. Victor Vargas deals with a hurricane of rejection, a crazy family, and girl problems, but he still tries to be the best man he can. He struggles, but he definitely matures.

Here’s another reality we don’t often see truthfully on screen: that of Native Americans. In “Smoke Signals,” we watch a complicated friendship evolve between the quiet and traditional Thomas Builds-the-Fire and the extroverted and searching Victor Joseph. Based on a novel by Sherman Alexie, director Chris Eyre keeps a uniquely Native American experience relatable to everybody by using the storyline of a road trip.

Another example of combining a coming-of-age film with a road trip is “Y Tu Mamá También.” The teen-focused picture set in Mexico covers every subject of an age transition: friendship, relationships, sexuality, and the desire to escape from a familiar setting. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, it would be difficult not to contrast “Güeros” or any other Mexican coming-of-age movie with this one.

Olga Verkhotina lives in Moscow where she works as a public relations manager for the communications agency Upside Com. A former Filmworks marketing intern, she still enjoys volunteering, even though she lives 10 time zones away.