Last night I saw the movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” based on the book by Stephen Chbosky. And it’s a good thing I was alone and that I had forgotten to put on mascara that day. Because oh, friends, I cried. And not the one-cute-little-tear-lurking-in-the-corner-of-my-eye kind of crying. There were full-on big fat tears running down my face, enough of them that I was embarrassed when the lights came back on. And it wasn’t even because of any of the legitimately sad plot points, which I won’t ruin for you. It’s just because I ached so much for all of those characters as they slowly, painstakingly learned to be who they were.
I left the theater feeling All The Feelings, and then I started wondering why movies about teenagers always make me cry, whereas movies about adults almost never do. The same is true of books—I’m not sure I’ve ever once shed a tear over a novel intended for grownups, but I sob my eyes out all the time over YA and middle grade literature. I’m thirty years old. I should be empathizing with adults. So why do these stories about younger people resonate with me so much? Why is it so easy for a seventeen-year-old girl making an I’m-trying-really-hard-to-be-brave face to grab me by the heart and twist? Why is it easier for me to write in a teenager’s voice?
I’ve been wondering about this for years, actually. But last night as I walked home from that movie, I finally came up with a theory.
When people write stories about adults struggling, they’re always struggling over something or toward something. How to get out of/over a bad relationship. Whether to quit a soul-sucking job and pursue a passion that offers less security. How to get your life back on track in the face of crippling depression or cancer or alcoholism. And those stories are totally legitimate and important, and they can be heart-wrenching.
But when people write stories about teens struggling, they’re often just struggling to learn how to exist in the world. There doesn’t have to be any specific complicating factor (though there certainly can be.) When you’re a teenager, just learning how to BE is a monumental task. Those years are about figuring out how to get up every day and face the world bravely, how to be the best version of yourself, how to comfortably inhabit your body and your mind. And according to the people who make movies and write books, these are things you’re supposed to have figured out by the time you’re a grownup. Teenagers are allowed that pure, existential struggle in a way that adults aren’t. Nobody tells stories about adults flailing around just to figure out how to exist, unless the point is that those adults are pathetic, stunted creatures who still live in their parents’ basements.
But here’s the thing: a lot of adults haven’t really figured it out. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager, but I still struggle to face the world bravely and be the best version of myself on a daily basis. Just because I know how to pay my taxes and hold down a job and deal with my own health insurance doesn’t mean I have myself totally nailed down. It just means I have to be better at pretending I do than I was at seventeen, because society tells us that existential struggle in adults makes us look weak instead of making us look normal.
When I watch movies and read books about teenagers, it hits me right in the heart not because of nostalgia, but because in some ways I’m still there, looking for the right way to be me, figuring out how to hang onto those moments that—as Stephen Chbosky so beautifully put it—make me feel infinite.
Other people who write/compulsively consume stories about teens, am I alone in this? Or do you feel the same way?