Smile if you can, you're on camera!
In which Manya Sinha watches coming-of-age cinema and sees themselves in small moments of truth.
One of my greatest fears, (which has lately become a fleetingly comforting thought), is that, like most of us, I will live my life ordinarily, and then die uneventfully. The memory of who I was will fade into oblivion. What’s even more baffling is that I'm supposed to carry on with my day despite the weight of this knowledge.
When I was around 3 or 4, I’d just started kindergarten and the concept of what gender was hadn’t aggressively been drilled into me yet. So when this particular twit on the bus ride home pointed out my shoes and teased me for being a ‘girl’. He claimed that I had lied to him about being a boy; I am not sure that I did. My feet felt like they were on fire and I remember being enraged enough to want to remove those shoes and whack him right across his stupid, smug face. What an odd, complicated feeling to feel as a child and what may be even stranger, I still remember it as vividly 18 years later. At 22, I may have the vocabulary to express the rage I felt but at the time it was all-consuming angst without an outlet. Maybe the twit was right. Maybe I deserved to be mocked for wearing ‘girl shoes.’
So, at age 22, when I recently watched Tomboy (2011), a movie by Celine Sciamma, this memory came rushing back to me in the form of a repressed-memory-I-thought-was-a-dream-but-it-actually-happened.
Artwork by Trishala Sabnis
Mikael (Zoé Héran), the protagonist of the movie, jumps through hoops just so that they could be perceived as a boy by their friends and tells one lie after another just to maintain the ‘illusion’ in which they found their authenticity. The hostage situation, which was conveniently veiled as an expectation from Mikael, materializes when Mikael’s mother forces them to wear a dress so they could go and inform everyone in the neighbourhood that Mikael is not a boy and that they're, in fact, a girl. This precise moment sent a familiar ripple of realisation of being dressed in feminine clothes as a child. I remember how it felt. I felt odd and out of place. That’s really the best way to describe it in retrospect. Odd. Out of place. Like wearing a shoe that’s not your size. When the film ended, I wanted to give Mikael a hug which, in a way, would've also been holding my younger self in a tight embrace and letting them know that it’ll be okay. I would tell my younger self: “I know it doesn’t feel that way right now; I know you feel like you're running against a giant tide that’s coming your way. But you will escape it, albeit with a little salt water in your mouth. And you’ll grow up, which is when you’ll learn and then you’ll unlearn and then you’ll learn to wear and fit into your own skin and not into someone else’s ill-fitting shoes. And you’ll be okay.”
Talking of tides, I watched Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016) for the first time when I was 20 and it feels as though I have to conjure up a new vocabulary to describe what I felt. In the two years that I’ve attempted—and failed—to articulate what I feel, this is what I’ve come up with: I suppose that while I was rooting for Little (Alex R. Hibbert), I viewed his character with a slight envy. And the envy let itself be known in the one scene where Juan (Mahershala Ali) holds Little in the ocean and says, "Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey, man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world.”
I still feel like a tall child that needs a Juan to hold me and reassure me that I do not have to tighten my chest to stay afloat, that I do not deserve to drown and to gently, constantly remind me of this because so far I’ve been a terrible swimmer.
During this pandemic-imposed lockdown, to maintain a sliver of sanity and escaping the terrifying reality of present and the uncertainty that lingered over the future, the past was my best and only escape.
So I started watching (and re-watching) coming-of-age films, though many of them seem to have similar worn-out plots. I was hoping that nostalgia would let me piggyback through the present.
Until I had to make uncomfortable introspections for this article, the only reason for me to watch these films was to hope that I might magically acquire the ability to reconstruct and rewire a better and more polished reality of my childhood and adolescence. I’m not saying that adolescence was a bad time for me but I will say precisely this, in more words, throughout the whole article.
Beginning with the significantly and objectively the worst time of my life that immediately makes me want to retreat into the woods and scream for hours: high school. I’d watched one too many movies that made me believe in the urgency to grow up in your teenage years and squeeze out all the fun and entertainment for a lifetime you could… or your life would crumble in a split second. And dear reader, guess what happened? Nothing! I spent a lot of time being miserable and ignoring the semi-permanent lump of anxiety in my throat. When you’re a teenager, you live with the angst of knowing that your experience is unique and absolutely no one in this world can remotely understand how you’re navigating this newfound desperation to know yourself and be known; that no one really ‘gets’ you and that you’ll never be understood, and guess what, you’re right. Despite having been a teenager some years ago, I don’t ‘get’ teenagers, how can anyone even claim to? Nobody understands the loneliness that comes with being newly sentient to the world, of the pseudo-invincibility you try to generate by giving yourself a pep talk before sleeping every night ‘HELL YEAH I’m going to get my life together BEGINNING TOMORROW. NOBODY CAN STOP ME, NEW DAY NEW ME.’ And each night, admitting you’ve failed and retiring to bed and trying to work up the resilience to let yourself try again tomorrow.
You are right, nobody understands.
But what someone can do for you when you’re going through this phase of your life is to acknowledge your pain, to acknowledge you, and that’s what my English teacher, Neera Puri, whom we called Neera Ma’am, did for me. She’d never explicitly said it in those words but what did she do was treat me like a human being who was (still is) struggling to find their individuality, she shared her lunch with me during recess which I would have otherwise spent by myself, listened to me ramble about the new artists I discovered or a movie I watched. She actually took time out to listen to me and expressed sincere interest in knowing who I am and what I liked/disliked and who I wanted to be. And when my anxiety-riddled brain, steeped in low self-esteem and self-doubt, convinced me that I’m talentless and will never amount to anything, she discouraged the very thought when she framed my photographs and hung them on the wall of her basement office. She really saw me at a time when I wanted to disappear the most. So when I first watched the House of Hummingbird (dir. Kim Bora, 2019), I texted her because it reminded me of us. Articulating everything I felt about it would always be inadequate and unjust to the ten minutes that I cried when the film was over. Kim Bora treated the protagonist, Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo), with the care that she deserved and accompanied it with beautiful cinematography that felt like a warm hug on a cold winter night. Eun-hee is subjected to insensitivity and inconsideration every step of the way until Kim Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), a teacher at the academy she learns Chinese at, shows up in her life. She makes the effort to really know Eun-hee. And so the one scene that I often find myself thinking of is the one where Eun-hee innocently asks Young-ji in a letter, “Miss Young-ji, when will my life start to shine?” and it reminded of the hopefully naivety I had as a child and how I yearn to have that again. It also reminded me of the hopeless resignation I feel now, now that I’m older. But to know that you were once hopeful, I think, reminds you to be hopeful again. The other scene that stayed with me is the one where Young-ji writes to Eun-hee in a letter, “What's the right way to live? Some days I feel like I know, but I really don't know for sure. I just know that when bad things happen, good things happen too. And that we always meet someone and share something with them. The world is fascinating and beautiful. I'm sorry I quit the academy. I'll call you after the vacation. And when we see each other, I will tell you everything.” which is where I was a bawling mess because the letter arrives (SPOILER ALERT) after Ms. Young-ji dies in the Seongsu Bridge collapse. Bora did an excellent job at conveying the grief of losing someone who understands you, and the pain of fighting for yourself alone now that they're gone through visual gestures of Eun-hee’s silent introspections of staring at the movement of her hands, a thing Young-ji had taught her to do to cope with and remind herself that she can still do something on bad days when she felt like she couldn’t.
On being 13
How do we survive being 13 years old? I don’t know, I just know that 13 is when we first begin to endure.
I watched Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham, 2018), which is the story of 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) who, for the most part, fades into the background but takes one step at a time to like herself through her self-affirming vlogs and hype-up post-its. When I first watched it, I was awestruck of how Bo Burnham, a 27-year-old man, known for his hilarious comedic musicals, could capture the experience of being 13, of being in the 8th grade specifically, with all its disquieting glory and hurt. Kayla’s story was obviously relatable as a whole but two scenes that stood out to me the most was when Kayla understands that her presence at a rich, snobby classmate’s birthday is unwanted and desperately tries to, first, wriggle out of it before the day of the party and then texts her dad to come pick her up when her gift and her presence are passive-aggressively snubbed. Despite knowing she is unwanted, she makes an effort to drag herself out of her comfort zone and gives a karaoke performance in front of the party guests in the living room. All of this was such a peculiar and oddly specific reminder of how I didn’t have the credentials to sit with the cool kids (sorry I wasn’t ‘cool enough’ for you *“Red Hawks” rolling eye emoji*). The second scene that I remember is when Kayla is pacing around her room and breathlessly tries to talk over the phone to a high school senior, Olivia, who was to mentor her and help her ease into high school. Olivia tells Kayla that she was a mess when she was in the 8th grade to which she responds ‘Really?’ Kayla’s fumbling casualness reminds me of how interactions with other, seemingly cooler people, still feel like appearing for an exam, thanks to my stockpile of social anxiety.
While black-and-white films, especially in this day and age, get me hooked, the cynic in me immediately dismissed Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013) as a pretentious artsy film with run-of-the-mill, broke-girl-in-New-York-trying-to-survive plot but I stayed for Greta Gerwig and it was a religious experience.
In one particular scene, Frances (Gerwig) has an awkward monologue: ‘It's that thing when you're with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it. But it's a party, and you're both talking to other people, and you're laughing and shining, and you look across the room and catch each other's eyes. But not because you're possessive, or it's precisely sexual, but because, that is your person in this life. And it's funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it's this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It's sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don't have the ability to perceive them. That's - That's what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.’
I have spent a significant amount of time aggressively and impatiently unlearning the ‘Romantic-love-is-superior-to-all-other-loves’ trope we are force fed from the age we are old enough to tie our shoelaces. But on a subconscious level, this scene seemed like a very unsubtle foreshadowing that Frances will find a romantic interest towards the end of the film. And boy, was I wrong. Towards the end of the film, Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer) are at an after-party for Frances’ show, in a crowded room, and Sophie looks at her and Frances, after a moment of realisation reflects on her face, looks back at her and they share the precise moment that Frances had hoped to find in a relationship (or just life, I guess). And this was the precise moment, after a moment of realisation reflected on my face, that I realised that love was here with me all along in friendships where I could be the closest version of my authentic self. That I too had also found the look-across-the-room-and-nod-at-each-other-knowingly love in my best friend.
Columbus (dir. Kogonada, 2017) revolves around Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), each struggling to navigate a difficult relationship with a parent, one in the hospital and one in addiction relapse, juxtaposed against the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana. In this struggle, they find each other to hold on to and Jin eventually pushes her to pursue her interest in architecture. I am not one to sit patiently through slow burner films but my reward was when every beautifully architectured frame led to the scene where Jin and Casey hug, as a final goodbye. Goodbyes have never not been painful and Casey’s final attempt to hold on to, and then let go of everything that she knew and who she was made me feel so excruciatingly, completely human.
It also made me realise that friendships really do save you.
John Chu as Jin and Haley Lu Richardson as Casey in Columbus
On Sailing Through the Chaos
Honey Boy (dir. Alma Har'el, 2019), a semi-autobiographical account of actor and performance artist Shia Labeouf’s life, revolves around the strained and occasionally violent relationship a boy and his father share. Out of a need for self-preservation and even self-defence, Otis (Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges), constantly tries to stand up to his bully of a father (Shia Labeouf) and he fails. At one point during his time in rehab, Otis says, “The only thing of value that my father ever gave to me was pain. And you want to take that away from me?”
Shia LaBeouf as James Lort and Noah Jupe as Otis Lort in Honey Boy
In another scene, James Hort (Labeouf), says, “You know, a seed has to totally destroy itself to become a flower. That's a violent act, Honey Boy.”
The art that you consume can also be a revelation of yourself, but sometimes, it’s easier to give someone else the responsibility to express your grief and contour it into something real rather than an aching abstraction that you carry with yourself.
Rajat Barmecha as Rohan in Udaan
Udaan (dir. Vikramaditya Motwane, 2010) evoked the same feelings as Honey Boy did when I first watched it. One day you’re a teenager doing normal things any teenager does: laughing with your friends, doing frivolous, stupid things and the next day you’re pushed into growing up and finding your individuality, that too, amidst a dysfunctional family and chaos. Despite what we are told about getting calmer with age, we carry so much of our angst from our adolescence into our adulthood. For the longest time I channelized this inwards because I didn’t know what to do with it until someone told me ‘Anger is not a virtue of the lazy.’
And Rohan (Rajat Barmecha), the protagonist, validated this feeling time and again, be it through his poetry/writing or raising a hand on his father. His submission and subsequent standing up for himself and his dreams, which culminates in the one scene where he finally outruns his father is where I understood that and it truly, TRULY changed me as a person.
I never could shed the desire to be a backbencher, even at this age, because there’s a relief in not being perceived which also, somehow, comes with the wish to be seen. And so we perform, for our friends, for our families, for strangers who might be keeping a record of our embarrassments in a tiny notebook or for when we mess up. But when the show is over, everyone leaves and the silence is deafening. So when I started watching coming-of-age films with the hope of making a nicer, shinier past for myself, I failed because instead of the magic trick of recreating a past, I was seen instead. I was seen, without expectations, in these small moments. And while I will live my life, ordinarily, like most of us do and then I’ll die, like all of us do, I’ll die knowing that for a minute, the spotlight was on me and I was the star of the show, my show.
So this is where I take a bow.