The films I have considered here all feature young people in central roles, but not all of them would necessarily be categorized as ‘youth films’. However, this begs the question of how we might determine what a ‘youth film’ actually is in the first place. Is it a quality of the film itself, or of its intended or actual audience? Not all films that feature young people in central roles are necessarily made exclusively, or even primarily, for a youth audience; nor is ‘youth’ necessarily the defining quality of such characters, or even a major theme of the films in question. ‘Youth films’, we might argue, are those which tell us stories specifically about youth itself – and, very often, about the transition from youth to adulthood. However, most of them do so for audiences of both young people and adults.
Indeed, it’s possible that most films that we perceive as ‘youth films’ implicitly view youth from the perspective of adulthood. This is the case, I would suggest, not just when it comes to ‘classics’ such as American Graffiti and Badlands, but also with allegedly juvenile comedies such as American Pie and Porky’s, which also attract substantial adult audiences. Among the films I’ve considered here, this adult perspective is most overt in Peggy Sue Got Married – where the main character is simultaneously a youth and an adult – but it is also implicit in the retrospective approach of all of them. Even Linklater’s films, which might be seen to present young people as ‘beings’ rather then ‘becomings’, also observe them from an implicitly adult perspective: they may seek to refrain from moralizing, but they still present transitional moments in time to which we can never return.
For Lesley Speed, this adult perspective – which she argues is particularly prevalent in retrospective ‘rites of passage’ films such as American Graffiti and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986) – represents a means of containing the potential challenge of youth. As such, she argues, it is inevitably conservative. As I hope to have shown, this is by no means always or inevitably the case. Even the apparent conservatism of American Graffiti or Peggy Sue Got Married turns out to be much more qualified and ambivalent than some of their critics have suggested.
In different ways, all these films are concerned not just with personal development, but also with historical and generational change. They speak of one era from the perspective of another. The historical setting of the films is not only a means of including some amusing or fondly remembered artefacts from the past – although the pleasure of this cannot be denied. It also provides a way of commenting on the meaning of wider social and cultural changes. Once again, this is of interest not only to young people in the present, but also to those who were young people in the past. As such, these films are bound to be vulnerable to the charge of nostalgia; but as I have argued, this term is all too often used as a form of blanket dismissal. In these instances at least, retrospect and nostalgia are much more ambivalent, and by no means necessarily as conservative, as some critics tend to suggest.
Of course, there are limits to how far we can infer the political consequences of a text from an analysis of the text itself: we have to consider audiences. As Andrew Higson has shown, audience responses to the alleged ‘nostalgia’ of films that are set in the past may be quite diverse, and even contradictory. Age is one factor in this diversity: young people and adults may interpret ‘youth films’ in very different ways. Nevertheless, we need to beware of making undue generalizations here. A given film may have multiple audiences – and indeed many ‘youth films’ may appeal, not only to the adult but also to the youth in us all.