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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Maturing Moviegoer: Growing Pains and American Beauty

Eli Flesch
Eli Flesch

Before Kevin Spacey was ruthless United States Congressman Frank Underwood, preying on girls half his age, he was Lester Burnham, a middle class American man — who also preyed on girls half his age.

“American Beauty” is a 1999 Best Picture film by Sam Mendes. It’s up there on my list of greatest movies ever made. This great piece of work instructs us to “look closer” into what gives ordinary lives meaning, and how we react to truths about ourselves and others. Such themes are persistent throughout life, but they hold a certain weight in youth.

Lester’s in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Morning masturbation sessions are the highlight of his days. He’s a man with a family, but that doesn’t make him a family man. His materialistic wife hates his guts, and his daughter thinks he’s a “lame-o.” It’s dysfunctional.

We’ll focus on the daughter, Jane. She’s an insecure girl who finds no anchor in her family. She turns to others in her life. But even these others betray her needs. When her best friend, Angela, becomes the object of Lester’s desire, she finds herself in the hands of the mysterious, wonderstruck Ricky Fitts. And finally, to tie the main cast together, we have Ricky’s father, Frank, a strict, abusive man who hates gay people more than Donald Sterling hates black people.

Jane’s insecurity stems from many reasons — a preoccupation with image, a struggle to embrace sexuality and the disconnect she experiences with her parents. In other words, she’s a teenager. In one of the most famous scenes of the movie, she and Ricky admire a video Ricky shot of a plastic bag being tossed and turned by the wind. Maybe it’s Ricky’s intoxicating voice, maybe it’s the haunting score, but this bag takes on a life of its own. In these moments, we find beauty in something mundane. Perhaps Jane’s own turns and tosses can be viewed similarly.

What would the consequences of our coming-of-age look like if we viewed our growing pains as something of beauty? It would be tough. Just as it’s tough to elicit emotion from watching a plastic bag in the wind. But it may be worth it. Who says there can’t be humors in angst? I fucking love wallowing in despair.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that. Out of all the characters, Ricky’s arc is very minor, only slightly dictated by Jane. He seems to have an understanding of these latent beauties of life. He has a whole library of video recording, with subjects ranging from strangers to dead animals. What a creep. Or at least that’s how society would judge him. In reality, he has a mature sensitivity that is to be admired. And while he sells marijuana to Lester, we do not see him as a drug dealer.

To transfigure pain into something of beauty would help young adults gain an appreciation for the process of aging. For many, this process is less growing up, and more leaving the past behind. Everyone feels some sense that childhood was simpler. Many may have a wish to revert to those hey-days.

These people seem to romanticize. Yeah, childhood was simpler, it was a time of near total dependence on authority figures. Food was put in front of you. Bills were paid on your behalf. But it wasn’t all daisies and lollipops. It was a lot of rules, follow this person and that person, do what you’re told. That kind of sucked if I recall.

Once a person recognizes this, it becomes easier to be an active participant in one’s current state. Now, you may think this is an argument that’s going to culminate in the old adage that you shouldn’t dwell in the past. I would disagree. You should be aware of how the past influences your development.

For Ricky, a past of military school and a father who beats him has left him wary but smart. He has a wisdom that is beyond his age. This leads us to the final truth that “American Beauty” illustrates so profoundly. The painful parts of our aging should not be shied away from.

If you ever find yourself bored in class, think about those dreary moments where nothing seemed like it was going your way. It will help you deal with the future when that inevitably comes. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Don’t worry. One day you will.

To understand that last reference, you can either watch the movie or reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @eliflesch.

 

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