An Open Letter to the Films That Raised Me

By Kathryn Klein

I have always loved traveling to different worlds. Sometimes this travel involves plane flights and long car rides and a jarring feeling in the pit of my stomach when I wander around a new city for the first time, entirely lost in my unfamiliar surroundings but buzzing with excitement. More often, this travel is contained within my own head, where I am guided by books, movies, and television shows. The sensation I often feel during Chapter One, while discovering a brand new world and cast of characters, is strikingly similar to how I feel upon entering a new city. I am slightly off kilter but eager to continue the journey.

When I was a child, I particularly loved reading fantasy stories, burying my nose into tales of faraway realms filled with wonderful, fascinating creatures. I was particularly captivated by people who, despite living in fantastical circumstances so different from my own, felt deeply familiar. I often preferred books to screens as they allowed me a level of control and agency that is rare and foreign at such a young age; it is much easier to stay up late reading, hiding beneath the proverbial covers with a flashlight, than to sneak out of the bedroom and turn on the television. As a result, I was essentially able to wander into these realms at will.

It is in the pages of these books that “coming of age” stories first entered my life. Books such as Harry Potter and Ella Enchanted, Nancy Drew and The Outsiders, showed me what it means to grow up, and isn’t that something we all have to experience at some point? No matter how different the life of the protagonist was from my own, I was able to relate to these stories on the most fundamental level, that shared experience, a jointly held struggle that breeds a sort of camaraderie. I, much to my dismay, never attended Hogwarts. And yet, many of the challenges that Harry, Ron, and Hermione faced concerned issues I immediately recognized from my own life, though perhaps with a few less dragons. As I grew up, the coming of age stories that appealed to me were not labelled as such, yet the essence of such stories was subtly present. I found them in history books while reading about the childhood and early endeavors of some of my favorite historical figures like John F. Kennedy, Alexander Hamilton, Anastasia Romanov, and countless others.

Coming of age movies though, will always hold a special place in my heart. There is something about the genre, reinvented in the 1980’s by John Hughes with his trifecta of Sixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, that has the perfect balance of self reckoning, trials and tribulations, awkwardness, and heart. Dirty Dancing, a particular favorite of mine from that era,  manages to capture the raw emotions of beginning to discover who you really are and who you want to be, while confronting the blunt realities of the world beyond that in which you’ve grown up. It features relationships that burn brilliantly but have clear ends, yet still manages to avoid playing into the trope of “doomed teen romance” with its accompanying melodrama. Rather, Dirty Dancing captures a difficult truth of the teenage era: experiences, wonderful and terrible alike, are almost all fleeting.

Depending on your point of view, this may sound either extremely depressing or vaguely comforting. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I’m nearing the end of my senior year of high school, mere months away from leaving the school I’ve attended since Kindergarten, and I’m feeling more than a touch of nostalgia. It is incredibly rare for a concrete, tangible thing from your youth to last. Events which seem catastrophic are all but forgotten a week later. Things may be perfect and wonderful and then shatter in an instant. Furthermore, this time in a person’s life is incredibly, intrinsically book ended. You leave the nest of home to begin school where you will hopefully find people to grow up with. Then you and your friends will likely scatter to the winds for college, and most of the people who you saw everyday and who had a massive impact on your life will become old acquaintances whose names you remember in yearbooks and at awkward reunions. This makes some of the most amazing things that are happening right now feel a little bitter sweet; there is a timer on all of them. But that fact doesn’t make the high points and the special moments any less phenomenal when they happen, a concept that Dirty Dancing captures effortlessly.

Clueless is another favorite of mine: a study of teenage insecurity and realization wrapped in lipgloss and yellow plaid. Beyond the general coming of age theme that feels universally understood, Clueless portrayed particular experiences that tangibly resonated with me. The film is a portrait, in many ways, of the pressure placed on young women by society, their peers, and themselves. Cher, the movie’s allegedly “clueless” heroine, has built an excellent, seemingly put together facade in her struggle to “mentor” those around her, look after her widowed father, and take care of herself. While I am fortunate to have two parents in my home, I can see swathes of myself watching Cher try to keep it together while appearing as though everything is under control. And as silly as it sounds, I can remember feeling a giddy thrill in my chest when, as a young girl, I focused upon Cher’s last name - Horowitz. Cher and her family are Jewish and yet, this isn’t some defining point in the movie and Cher isn’t a supporting character, introduced by an offhand reference to her bat mitzvah. While I have never struggled as many do to see myself represented on screen, that representation, an upbringing similar to my own in that regard, was a piece of the puzzle I never realized I was missing.

I just want to thank these films and the people who made them. Dirty Dancing showed me that “the time of your life” may not last your whole life and that’s okay. Clueless showed me that it’s okay to be passionate, to know what you want to do and to fight to do it (and that it's alright to be a little Clueless sometimes). Harry Potter allowed me to believe in magic even when I was far too old. I’d also like to thank 10 Things I Hate About You for giving the world the iconic Kat Stratford, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. for showing us all that growing up doesn’t just happen in High School, The Breakfast Club for demonstrating that you can relate to anyone if you just take the time to find common ground, and Almost Famous for teaching me that Band-Aids and Groupies are not the same thing.