One Day At A Time and Ashley Garcia: Genius in Love Get Quinces Right

"Quinces." Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, Stephen Tobolowsky, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in One Day at a Time (2017)
“Quinces.” Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, Stephen Tobolowsky, Todd Grinnell, Isabella Gomez, and Marcel Ruiz in One Day at a Time (2017). Netflix.

by Odalis Garcia Gorra | October 12, 2020

The season one finale of One Day At A Time (ODAAT), “Quinces”, starts with Penelope (Justina Machado) placing a tiara on her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez). At first, she seems uncomfortable, unsure of the faux diamond encrusted piece of plastic tangling her hair. Ever the feminist, Elena rolls her eyes at the ostentatious display of so-called beauty. “A tiara is a backward symbol of how women are only valued for their beauty,” she righteously declares. “And now that I’m wearing one…I don’t care! I look awesome. And it’s super sparkly!”

In that single minute, as part of a punchline, Elena turns from her staunch women’s empowerment stance and falls back to a more traditional girly role. The importance of this scene is laid out in Elena not caring what others think, because this is her day and nothing else matters.

Quinces. Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez in One Day at a Time (2017)
Penelope Alvarez (Machado) and Elena Alvarez (Gomez)

On a similar note, in The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia (AKA Ashley Garcia: Genius In Love — a title change I personally found a bit trite), Ashley (Paulina Chávez) finds herself frustrated after spending her birthday helping her friends, instead of celebrating. She’s disappointed that no one was there for her, especially knowing that her quinceañera — a year before this episode takes place — was spent defending her dissertation. “Today’s my birthday and I do care!”

For these two young women, a quinces isn’t a simple party. They signify a new beginning in their lives, a chance to be a part of something with a long cultural lineage and tradition. And as seen through these two shows, for both Elena and Ashley, a quinces means welcoming an era they were preparing all their life for.

As rites of passages go, quinceañeras are the most extravagant. They usually include an over the top theme, a brightly-colored sequined dress, a choreographed waltz for you and your court (las damas and chambelanes). A quintessential Latinx tradition, quinces include rituals such as changing your shoes, a dance with your father, and many start with a mass before moving to the party. For my own quinces my mom ordered 15 cakes for me to give out to all the important people in my life, my older brother sang an original song, and somewhere there was a chocolate fondue fountain, all tied together by a Phantom of the Opera theme.

Quinces are embedded in young Latinas’ social calendar. At my high school the first two and a half years were known as “Quinces Season.” The party, filled to the brim with primos, your abuelitas and all the ladies who call themselves your tias, a four to six hour homage of a young Latina leaving childhood behind. *cue Julio Iglesias singing ‘De Niña a Mujer.’* A new era of your life has arrived. 

The quinceañera impact on Latinx internet culture is vast and well documented. From BuzzFeed’s videos about women trying on their old quince dresses or explaining the struggles of being a quinceañera to Remezcla’s explainer piece on “peak quinceañera moments;” if you follow any Latinx media outlet there is no escaping the quinces thinkpiece or listicle. 

Their ubiquity in Latinx culture and households worldwide of course means that any sitcom featuring a Latinx family has to include at least a mention of one. In ODAAT we are made aware of the importance of this rite in the Alvarez household by the way that Penelope goes full captain-style command over the rest of the family. Elena’s goal? To be happy. Everyone else’s? To do all the work that goes into planning a gigantic event.

There’s a moment when Elena’s abuela, played by the inimitable Rita Moreno, goes off on her daughter for being so assertive. Penelope responds that she should understand her better than anyone, since she acted the same way for her own quinces. In this small instant we see the intergenerational implications that this party carries. But especially for Elena, who deals with coming out to her strict, conservative father. In choosing her quinces prep to tell her dad that she’s gay, Elena recognizes that there is a shift occurring in her life. She is no longer the same as before. This momentous event allows her to be more true to herself and with the people around her.

This truth also comes in the form of her quinces dress. Although the first gown that her abuela painstakingly spent days on is beautiful and Elena adores it, Lydia (Moreno) catches on that her granddaughter is not in love with it. Lydia tells her that she must be overcome with emotions so strong that she is left speechless. Lydia does every alteration there could be done, but it isn’t until the day of the quinces that Elena’s true self comes in full form. She reveals that instead of a white sparkly dress, she put together an all-white suit for her only granddaughter. Elena is left overwhelmed and tearing up — the correct response to Lydia’s handiwork. During the party, Penelope is the one to introduce Elena: “Elena has always been her own girl and now she’s becoming her own woman.” And though it ends with her father not being able to deal with his daughter being gay and subsequently ditches, the episode wraps up with an important scene. Elena is surrounded by her family (and her neighbor Schneider and her mom’s boss Dr. Berkowitz), who are holding her close, ready for the next chapter to come.

The episode, “Another Trip Around The Sun,” in Ashley Garcia has a lighter tone than ODAAT (seeing as there are no runaway asshole fathers). But there is still a sentimental pull when Brooke (Bella Podaras), Ashley’s best friend, asks if she even wanted a quinces. Ashley explains that it didn’t matter what she wanted. “There was no time, and I didn’t have any friends to make a court of honor.” She was too busy being a genius, and even they can’t have it all. At this point, she still hopes that she can at least celebrate by having her favorite cake (carrot) with her favorite people.

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The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia (2020). Netflix.

At the end of the episode we find out all the distractions from her friends were a ruse to get her to Pat’s Restaurant. There, everyone she loves was waiting with a big quinces surprise. The ugly “costume” she was wearing magically turns into a gorgeous quinceañera gown (think Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway), and she is beaming as she looks around the room. Her tío, Victor (Jencarlos Canela), introduces her: “Although she’s already made a name for herself in the world of adulthood, she did skip a few steps along the way.” The point being that even though Ashley is incredibly successful (and we love a young Latina genius) there was still this one important rite she had to do. And while there are still more to come (even though the show has now been canceled), she has experienced the ups and downs of teenhood that she was always searching for.

Both shows take care in telling these quinceañera stories with the thought and nuance they deserve. They demonstrate that than a rite of passage, more than just a party, a quinces is supposed to bring about a new part of your life. 

It is this care in showing the cultural significance of this moment that is important to have for Latinxs across the United States. The fact is that lack of representation for quinces is emblematic of a larger issue in Hollywood. Latinxs are highly underrepresented on the screen (both big and little) — on film they made up 3 percent of lead or co-lead roles — even though they make up 19 percent of the population. A lack of quince stories does not mean that there aren’t some incredible Latinx coming-of-age films, or TV shows. From Real Women Have Curves to Raising Victor Vargas, these stories show the breadth of lived experiences as a young Latinx person in the United States. But there are few who touch upon this specific rite of passage. 

The instances we do have, only make for a more fully realized image of Latinx culture that should be shown across audiences, regardless of cultural and ethnic background. It is also to have others understand how young Latinas have their own entrance into womanhood, and the only representations of “coming out” to society aren’t just through cotillions (hello, Gilmore Girls). Shows like On My Block and Wizards of Waverly Place have made quinces a part of their larger storylines. Even Starz original Vida does its own spin on the quinceañera, with a double queerceañera, a pseudo coming-of-age celebration for one of Lyn’s (Melissa Barrera) friends on his 30th birthday. The 2006 independent film Quinceañera is another reflection of what this event means to families and the dreams that it carries. Dreams that are supposed to set the tone for the rest of your life.

My mom always said that after your 15s, the years would come a lot faster. Even now, as I sit and write this article a decade after my own quinceañera, I remember it as if it were yesterday. Nevermind that due to the pandemic I am back at my mother’s house, where reminders of this event are on prominent display in our living room. Memories that I can’t escape, of the moment I wore a bright red sequined gown in front of my family, friends, and loved ones. It is satisfying to watch Elena and Ashley settle deeply into the love they deserve on their special day. A quinceañera, quinces, 15s, is a gesture of deep care and sign that you are ready for the world — whatever it brings.

Odalis Garcia Gorra is a writer, scholar and co-founder of Grow Up based in Miami, FL. Her love of TV started early, spending hours watching telenovelas with her mom and abuela. She’s written three academic papers on Jane the Virgin and has very strong feelings about Cuban food, empanadas, and the salsa dancing emoji. You can follow her on Twitter (@odcgg).

Growing Up with “Scream”: A Closer Look at High School Musical 3’s Most Dramatic Song

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High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) dir. Kenny Ortega. Walt Disney Pictures.

by Katherine Clowater | September 21, 2020

“Playing a role is easy, but being yourself, now that’s a challenge.” – Ms. Darbus

For some, rewatching High School Musical is a childhood nostalgia trip, reminding oneself of the simple joys of tuning into your local kids’ channel to sing and dance along with the lovable students of East High. For others, such as myself, a rewatch of this trilogy – especially High School Musical 3: Senior Year – is eye-opening. As a 10-year-old, seeing Troy Bolton break into his school in the middle of the night to run around panicked about colleges and his future seemed like an over-the-top reaction to simply choosing a school. What was the big deal?

When I turned 18 and entered senior year, I found out. Once I started applying to universities and deciding my major, the visual of Troy being thrown around in a spinning hallway suddenly made sense. The seemingly overly dramatic teens of East High that I once viewed as much older than me were now people my own age and they expressed the same struggles and anxieties of high school that I was facing—although for them, there was a little more singing involved. Maybe Troy Bolton wasn’t being so outrageous after all.

The pressures of scholarships and acceptance letters, the anxieties of choosing the right career path, the realization that this may be the last time all your friends will be in the same place; each of those experiences that seemed cliché or unrealistic, eventually became my reality — and the reality of so many other teenagers. I had passions for writing and movies but, like Troy Bolton, I wasn’t sure if they were hobbies I dabbled in or things I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. It’s a big decision to be asked to make at the ripe old age of 17 or 18, when your brain is still developing and you’re only just starting to truly explore your interests and individuality. As the countdown on my time in high school began to tick away, and adulthood and important choices about my future loomed in the ever-nearing distance, I recalled Senior Year, and I remembered “Scream.”

I’ve been the proud flag bearer of the “‘Scream’ is the best and most important High School Musical song” stance for years and this feeling has only intensified as I’ve gotten older (even now as I rewatched the scene countless times while writing this essay). Not only is it the pique Angsty Troy Bolton Song™ (yes, even more than “Bet On It”, I’m sorry!), but it encapsulates the struggles of Troy throughout Senior Year, the trilogy as a whole, and so much of the teenage experience—all in one song!

Scream” begins with Troy slamming the door on his rusty old truck as thunder booms and lightning crackles overhead. His face is concealed by a dark hoodie that he tears off to replace with his soon-to-be retired basketball jersey, still wearing his regular jeans and sneakers. He’s literally split down the middle: one part of him holding onto basketball, the other drawn toward something else. Cue the soft piano and Troy’s angst-filled existential crisis solo number.

Troy stands at centre court as basketballs descend from the heavens, threatening to overwhelm him. At the same time, (through the song) he articulates his frustration with his friends, family, teachers and their expectations of him to choose either basketball or theatre—without ever asking him what he wants. Troy expresses this during a conversation with his girlfriend, Gabriella, earlier in the movie when he says, “You chose Stanford. [University of Albuquerque] was sort of chosen for me.” He feels like his desires are unheard. Like many other teens, he is tasked with adult responsibilities but is not being treated like one. The catalyst conversation that sparks Troy to run to the school as refuge is one between him and his father who recalls how much Troy talked about going to the University of Albuquerque as a kid, and Troy cuts him off by exclaiming that he’s not a kid anymore. Wanting to be taken seriously and be seen as an equal, as a grown up, but being looked at as a perpetual child to adults is a frustrating aspect of getting older that many teens have to face. 

These seemingly infinite basketballs thud around him, just like the voices of the people in his life telling him “they know best.” In response, Troy punches and kicks the balls, trying to fend them off and give him the quiet he needs to think for himself. In a visual reference to Hamlet, another brooding student struggling to make a life-changing choice, Troy catches a basketball and holds it out balanced in his palm like a skull. To be or not be a basketball player? That is the question. His worlds of basketball and theatre colliding. Everyone has expectations for him, but what will he choose for himself?

As these questions tumble around in his head, Troy is tumbling around in a spinning hallway. He is thrown off balance before he is even able to find his footing again, aimlessly stumbling like Alice through the looking glass. The once familiar, welcoming and warm environment of his school has transformed and twisted into a cold, nightmarish carnival funhouse. His disorientation is not only caused by the rotating hallway but by the uncertainty he faces each day in a place where he used to feel safe and secure in himself. A place that is brimming with student life during the day is suddenly empty and lifeless at night. Simultaneously, the hallways are confining and claustrophobic, and threatening to cave in on Troy as he tries to break free.

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Zac Efron as Troy Bolton in High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008).

In the beginning of the movie, Troy and Gabriella share the desire to have time stop since the end of the year is approaching fast. As Troy crawls backwards up the staircase, fearful and lost, he is still moving forward and ascending without knowing what is ahead of him but he cannot stop it no matter how scared it makes him. High school ending is inevitable. Climbing those stairs backwards is a high risk, high stake scenario; slipping and missteps likely lay ahead but he can’t know for sure where they may occur. And even with those risks, he has to keep going. Lightning flashes behind him like an apocalyptic scene, as though the world is ending. For Troy, and for so many teens and young adults, these looming milestones can feel world-ending and as though everything is falling apart but they still have to enter the world every day and keep going even if it is uncertain. It’s terrifying.

As the song reaches its bridge, Troy reaches the cafeteria and pleads to the room of empty lunch tables, “Can the music ever be enough?” Is this just a hobby or a true calling? A giant poster of himself playing basketball towers over him. He is faced with himself, the way people view him and the expectations they have for him, and he tears it all down. In this moment, he embodies teenage rebellion: defying his father and his basketball coach all at once (as they’re one in the same). In this moment, Troy has his breakthrough by shedding the expectations weighing on him and is on the way to forging his own future.

After his realization, Troy is beckoned to East High’s theatre like a sailor to a siren’s song. In his basketball jersey dancing at centre stage, he is able to express who he truly is and has decided who he wants to be. By embracing both of his passions, he finally feels comfortable enough to scream. To scream, for Troy, is to verbalize the feelings he has been holding in throughout the film and the entire trilogy. He is constantly interrogated and alienated for exploring interests outside of people’s preconceived notions about him but a crucial part of growing up and being a teen is growing out of some things and growing into others. Our passions, desires, interests, and convictions are constantly evolving as we continue to learn and meet new people on our way to becoming adults.

By the end of each movie, he resolves these issues to an extent, but Senior Year solidifies the fact that the choice ultimately becomes his own. This weight and realization is what leads Troy to “Scream” and choose for himself regardless of what those around him perceive as the ‘proper’ path. This is the first time in the trilogy that Troy seems truly content to live authentically — because it is his choice. 

“Scream” is loud, dramatic, and even downright Shakespearean in its portrayal of doubt, anxiety, and the growing responsibilities of adulthood — but that’s how it feels to be a teenager. It’s emotional, all-consuming, even if in hindsight it seems smaller than it was—in the moment, it can feel overwhelming; so overwhelming that sometimes it just makes you want to scream.

Katherine Clowater is a writer from Canada. She recently graduated with a BA in English and hopes to write professionally. She devotes her free time to reading books, watching movies, and over-analyzing Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @_katclo.

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Me and Jo March: Locating Queerness at Orchard House

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Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong. Columbia Pictures.

by Anna Burnham | September 21, 2020

There is no stream in the current of my memory that exists without Jo March and Little Women in it. I imagine there must have been a time when I first watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, or a first time when I read the illustrated children’s version of the novel that now lives as a sacred text on a shelf in my parents’ house, but I cannot remember them. There is no time before this story was a part of my internal chemistry, my cultural vocabulary. And there, at the center of that story that has always seemed to be a part of my bones, is Jo, a heroine before her time: headstrong, independent, loud, smart, boyish, moody, antsy, different. For my entire life, Jo March has been a friend, a kindred spirit, a character that exists in some palpable way in a magical space distinct from the page and screen.

In the same way that I can’t remember a time before Little Women entered my life, I cannot remember a time when I did not feel within myself a deep, aching difference. Not even a difference “from my family” or “from other girls,” but a sense that something about me — maybe everything about me, maybe my body, my spirit, my mind, my interests, my entirety — simply did not fit. My adolescence was marked by a sort of constant longing, a frustration at the feminine trappings expected of me as a girl, a desire to burst out of my skin and my world. It was marked by the sense that I was meant for other, better things, that I had outgrown my hometown before I had even grown up myself. I now look back on that difference and name it all as the lifelong signs of the queerness I would recognize, name, and own in my mid-20s. It was always there. I just didn’t have the language for it. But before I had the language for it, I had Jo March.

Every girl who likes to write and is perhaps a bit more drawn to playing outside than to playing at domestic things inside considers themselves “a Jo,” and while I mean no offense to all those other girls, I like to think the kinship I feel with her is special. About five years ago, I developed a “hot take” that Jo March was obviously queer. I thought it was such a hot take that I would spout my theory to whomever would listen, use it as my go-to reply for all those “gimme your best hot take” Twitter threads. I had no idea that there was already a long history of fans unearthing queerness in our most sacred stories and that I was entering into it. Looking back, I realize that I couldn’t name myself as queer without first establishing that my heroine and lifelong companion was, too.

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Winona Ryder as Jo March in Little Women (1994) dir. Gillian Armstrong

There are many screen versions of Little Women, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder as Jo remains the most formative for me. It is a roaring-fire-in-the-hearth sort of movie, cozy and soothing as it moves through the seasons of both the year and of the characters’ lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Ryder’s Jo is a classic tomboy — a term that I now, in adulthood, recognize as loaded and normally signalling some innate queerness in young girls, but that at the time I embraced with vigor. She hates “blasted skirts.” She hides from boys at balls that she didn’t want to go to anyway. She “rather craves violence.” She’s eternally disappointed in not being a boy. She crashes through sylvan streams barefoot and free to gather wildflowers. 

Growing up watching this movie, I saw who I wanted to be in her spunkiness, her uniqueness, her wit. As I got older, though, I responded to something less obvious, something deeper and more profound: a sort of deep longing Jo can’t shake, a sense that she does not fit not only in her home, but perhaps anywhere, ever. In a scene right after Jo rejects Laurie (a young Christian Bale), she sits in her frustration and sorrow with her mother, wondering at her fitfulness, her restlessness, her oddity, at how it is that she just feels so different. “I’m ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things,” she laments. She is lonely, craving. “I love our home but I just can’t stand being here! There’s just something wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t, and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” When I was younger, I thought I was drawn to Jo for her spunkiness; I now think that I recognized my own innate not-fitting in her clumsy ache to be something different, to do something different.

Now, the tomboy-ish qualities I loved in Jo seem like obvious markers of her queerness, but so too does that ache she carries around. Some have posited that the chief characteristic of queerness is a chronic sense of longing. There’s another scene, after Jo has moved to New York to try and make it as a writer, where she dazzles a room of men with her argumentation skills. “You should have been a lawyer, Miss March,” one of them says. “I should have been a great many things,” Jo replies, a stunning note of sadness in her voice. Even in New York, ostensibly living out her dream as a working writer, she thinks with sadness of all that she never was and never can be because of the circumstance of her gender and place in society. In the tumult of my coming to terms with my own queerness, I responded to that longing within Jo because it was also deep inside me.

But Jo is not an inherently sad person, though she has that strain of melancholy. She is fierce, she is loyal. She loves her family and her home in Concord. She goes away, yes, but she returns when her family needs her. She wants to be a writer not to be wildly successful, but because it is something that she must do, that she cannot do without. She buys her sister Beth a new coat with her earnings from a story. She opens a school in Concord at the end of the novel. I think Jo March — in all her messy longing, in all her clumsy return — has been teaching me how to build a life of love, community, and purpose for a very long time.

In Armstrong’s film, that love, community, and purpose is richly shown through the setting of a singular, very real place that also came to mean a great deal to me: Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is not only Jo’s home, but was Louisa May Alcott’s, as well. Like Jo, Alcott grew up in a house called Orchard House on a road heading out of town. You can still visit Orchard House and take a tour there. You can visit her family’s plot in the local cemetery and lay a pen on her stone in gratitude, as so many have done before. Concord is just a 25-minute drive from where I used to live in Cambridge as a graduate student at Harvard. During graduate school, it became my refuge. I was drawn there repeatedly, inexplicably, throughout the seasons. In the summer I made pilgrimages at least once a week to the banks and impossibly perfect waters of Walden Pond (of Thoreau fame) on the far edge of town. In the fall and winter I would leave Cambridge for the entire day and retreat to the Concord Free Library’s reading room to write my master’s thesis. Sometimes I took a mid-day break to go for a run, always making a point to pass by Orchard House. Concord is where I went to think, to write, to wander, to slip into the cool waters of a famous pond, to feel more intentional and in control of my solitude when it crept too close to undesired loneliness.

The tail end of the lifelong process of realizing I was queer overlapped with the length of graduate school. It can’t be a coincidence that I grew attached to the town of Concord at the same time as I was coming to terms with, naming, and living into my queerness. That a stretch of three years that started with the quiet desperation of my “hot take” that Jo March is gay and ended with the writing of this piece brought me, over and over, to the gentle magic of the town imbued with her legend. Perhaps visiting Concord reminded me of Jo’s spirit. Perhaps being there compelled me to not live a life with quite so much unresolved longing as her circumstance had resigned her to. Facing that meant finally, slowly naming that difference I’d felt for so long.

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Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord Massachussetts

When I found myself in Concord over and over, joking with friends who noticed that I just loved pretending I was in Little Women, I was creeping closer toward naming something that I still think only could have happened there. Identifying with a character in a beloved film is a way of expressing parts of who we are in the tumult of adolescence when our language does not yet match the complexity and breadth of what we feel inside ourselves. I recognized a certain sameness between me and Jo years before I could point to either of us and and say “Duh, queer.” Representation can show us a model of something, spark recognition, encourage us to consider a possibility we hadn’t before. When I began asserting to others that Jo March was deeply, obviously queer, I was trying to tell the people around me — I was trying to tell myself — that I was, too.

On my way out of Boston after graduation, I went for one last swim in Walden Pond. I floated in its devastatingly perfect waters, thinking about the marvel of place and history and story. I thought about the little pin on the map of the world that is Concord, Massachusetts, and how I had first visited there in my mind through the page and the screen, and then how it had held me for real as I became something new, something full. I drove past Orchard House. I put on the 1994 soundtrack and cried for a bit as I did. I thanked Louisa. I thanked Jo. I said goodbye. I brought it all with me.

Anna Burnham is a writer, researcher, and organizer who loves talking and thinking about community, religion, public life, social movements, gender, and pop culture. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, but if you spend more than five minutes with her, you will quickly learn that she grew up amidst the farmlands of central Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @ac_burnham.

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Analog Love in a Digital World: Re-watching ‘Before Sunrise’ 25 Years On

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Before Sunrise (1995) dir. Richard Linklater. Columbia Pictures.

by Sam Nicholls | September 21, 2020

Earlier this year, in honour of the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the cast and crew of Before Sunrise (1995) sat down with the New York Times to discuss their memories of the cult classic’s production

As they waxed poetic and reminisced on the hazy summer days and late-night rewrites, the conversation naturally drifted to how they felt the film was remembered by the public. In particular, Ethan Hawke (who played Jesse) made a notable contribution: “my daughter [the actress Maya Hawke] decided to watch the movie with some of her friends, and there was a certain envy they had for a time where you didn’t have email. Life insisted that you live in the moment more. There’s something about always being digitally present that allows you to not be present, and part of what Jesse and Céline [played by Julie Delpy] try to do in that movie is actually be present with each other.”

Told over the course of 12 or so hours, Before Sunrise is markedly centred around Jesse and Céline being “present with each other.” He’s a Euro-railing American, stuck in Vienna for a night until his flight home the following morning, and she’s a Parisian student he meets on a train who, on a whim, decides to join him. As they wander around the Austrian capital – with just each other for company — they grow close and fall in love, only to say goodbye at sunrise, perhaps never to meet again. It’s a daydream of a story, and perhaps not one that could’ve existed in a world saturated with social media.

It’s an overwrought question, but one that rings true: oxymoronically, does the interconnectedness of social media push us apart? Like Hawke suggests, Jesse and Céline’s love story may not have worked if either had an iPhone to hide behind. In their rewatches of the film, a wave of contemporary critics have commented that Before Sunrise “romanticises” this analog world of the 90s, celebrating it as a bygone era that is sought after but, unfortunately, never fully reached. 

But is this actually the case? Is it possible for today’s youth to achieve that analog sort of love in this digital world? In watching Before Sunrise 25 years later, are today’s Jesses and Célines being shown something they can never realistically achieve, and should they even care? 

In other words, is Maya Hawke right to be envious?

Simply put, the 1990s are quite different to the 2020s. The internet, the culture, even the coronavirus; despite only being 30 years apart, these two times feel worlds away. More presciently, because of this, the way we experience the world in each period is vastly different. This is perhaps best epitomised in Before Sunrise’s framing of Vienna itself. Jesse and Céline have no ‘guide’ to the city – unlike modern couples, they don’t have Google Maps, social media, or even a friend on speed-dial to help them navigate the magnificent metropolis. All they have is each other. When Jesse first pitches the idea of sharing a night in the capital together, Céline asks, “What are we going to do?” he candidly responds with an excited, “I don’t know!” 

As a result, Vienna is constructed as a place of mystery, its unchartered waters are a space of vulnerability, with the pair at Vienna’s mercy. Neither speak German, nor do they know the cobbled roads well. They wander aimlessly into bars and parks without any forethought, and because of this, their experiences are discovered, not sought after. As critic David Sims comments, “[Before Sunrise] really acts as if Vienna is a magic kingdom laid out for Jesse and Céline to have their perfect night, down to the poet by the canals who creates an original work for them on the spot.” The capital facilitates Jesse and Céline’s love story through creating a “magic kingdom,” including zany residents for them to discover and bond over.

This analog experience of discovery is perhaps difficult, if not impossible, for those of us in a digital generation to achieve: even beyond our much-publicised ‘addiction’ to social technology, the world has evolved so that such a discovery is harder to attain. Indeed, earlier this year, writer Stephen Kelman visited Vienna with his partner, hoping to relive Jesse and Céline’s love story by retracing their steps in the film. Recording the experience for LitHub, they soon discovered that such an endeavour was flawed. Everything is digital now. From eTickets to Airbnbs to Twitter recommendations, the world exists online. As Kelman commented, “any hope that we might somehow capture the movie’s magic… seemed suddenly foolish.” The world has changed since the 90s, and hoping to relive its analog kind of love seems like a fool’s errand.

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Julie Delpy as Céline and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunrise.

Moreover, it’s not only how we experience the world as a whole that has changed, but also the way we experience individual moments. Take Jesse and Céline’s first stop in Vienna, scouring the shelves of the ‘Alt and Neu’ record shop. Now almost a relic confined to the annals of history, record shops were a mainstay of the 90s, offering young people a space to connect and bond over a mutual love for a particular genre or artist. In Before Sunrise, it offers something even more: the chance to fall in love. Indeed, whilst shopping in the store, the pair decide to step into a booth and listen to Come Here by Kath Bloom. As the duo enjoy Bloom’s amorous lyrics, they don’t exchange a single word, instead only glancing at each other and only occasionally catching the other’s eye. As critic Daniel Broadley comments, “there’s a longing in each of their faces which captures the effects of two people falling in love”. The listening booth, then, acts as a space of communal experience, allowing Jesse and Céline to share that private, incipient moment of love through the music (Hawke stated in the New York Times interview that this section is “probably [his] favourite performance” throughout his career). In a world now devoid of listening booths, it’s hard to imagine a similar scene happening within such a space – to be in a listening booth of an unknowable city, sharing a safe and private moment (sharing earbuds don’t come close). Thus, it would appear that Before Sunrise does depict a world cut-off from the digital generations; one where cities are mysteries and record shops spark first loves without the distractions of a stream of notifications – how can contemporary viewers hope to achieve what that young pair do?

But, maybe we’re wrong. Indeed, the defining feature of the film isn’t the pair’s pre-digital existence but the heart-to-heart conversations they have. Despite only just meeting, Jesse and Céline consider an array of deep and thought-provoking topics, ranging from their parents’ career expectations of them (“He takes my dreams and turn them into a way of making money”) to how they feel the world’s problems are endemic (“Say what you want, the same shit is still there”). Importantly, these themes aren’t specific to their time: they’re issues every young person is bound to face. Each generation has been confronted with their parents pushing them down a more prudent path, and who doesn’t feel like they’ve inherited problems they can never fix? Before Sunrise isn’t so much a celebration of the ‘analog’ generation, but of the same existence every generation faces at some point: being young, being your own person, and being in love.

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise.

This timelessness is best illustrated at the end of the film. As Céline catches her train to Paris and Jesse boards the bus that will take him to the airport, the camera doesn’t linger with these separated lovers. Instead, we return to Vienna one last time, revisiting the different spaces in the city they explored the evening before (the Ferris wheel, the Maria-Theresien-Platz), backgrounded by the sun rising as Vienna awakens. The landmarks and monuments stand resolute and perpetual, ready for the next iteration of lovers. The grand shots betray the age of the city, indicating that many have found love in the capital’s long lifetime. Jesse and Céline may have memories of these places, but the city exists beyond just the two of them: Vienna has accommodated lovers before these two, and will continue to do so longer beyond them. This final tableaux is as cinematic and metaphorical as Before Sunrise gets, alluding to a time beyond the present as tomorrow finally dawns. This isn’t a film stuck in time, but rather one that touches all generations.

In essence then, Before Sunrise isn’t exhibiting a love that can never be achieved again; it’s just showing a form of that love that is perhaps resigned to history. Jesse and Céline fall in love, not due to record shops or the lack of Google Maps, but because of the conversations they share – conversations that can still happen in this digital world. Late night chats and long evening walks can happen anytime, anywhere. Before Sunrise isn’t “romanticising” a lost form of love but rather encouraging young people to go out and connect the way its lovers do. The film’s ‘analog’ charm may be lost to time, but talking, finding a deep connection, certainly isn’t.

In other words, Maya Hawke may be envious, but this sort of love is thankfully still out there.

Sam Nicholls Born and raised in South West London, Samuel is currently going through a Quarter-Life Crisis…but, like, in a cool way? You can follow him on Twitter @samniccy.

‘Never Been Kissed,’ and Why We Still Watch High School Movies In Adulthood

Never Been Kissed feature image Drew Barrymore
Never Been Kissed (1999) dir. Raja Gosnell. 20th Century.

by Claire White | September 21, 2020

I feel like a teenager again. But also, not really. 

Do you ever wish you could have a do-over? Stuck staring at the same four walls of our bedrooms, the ideas of alternative lives, what if’s and reflections on the past are sure to be swirling through your head. Most of us are at home, rewatching the same movies and TV shows that we watched when we were younger as a source of comfort, which for many are teen films, rom coms, and stories about high school. Delving into the familiarity of the nostalgia, this return to adolescence is almost like a search for a new beginning. 

In the 1999 film Never Been Kissed, 25 year-old copy-editor at the Chicago Sun-Times Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore), gets her chance at a do-over by pretending to be a high school student — all in the name of journalism. The euphoria Josie feels about finally being assigned her very own investigative reporting job is quickly doused by the sharp memories of her past, and the reality of her own miserable experience in high school. In flashbacks steeped in second-hand embarrassment, we see lemonade poured into her backpack to make it look like she is peeing herself while she talks to her crush in the middle of the school hallway; we see her being ridiculed with the nickname “Josie Gross-ie” by her classmates; we see her getting pelted with eggs while she stands outside her house in her prom dress, covered in yolk and the slow-dawning realisation that she’d only been asked to prom as a cruel joke. No wonder, then, that Josie and her younger brother, Rob (David Arquette) decide to see this assignment as a way to prove that she is not Josie Gross-ie anymore. 

The idea that a newspaper would be able to fund such a gratuitous assignment is baffling — and the rest of the movie even more so — but this bizarre plot allows Josie (and a few adult co-workers) the chance of what many dream of: to go back to high school. 

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By returning to high school, Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore, far right) finally gets a taste of being Popular in Never Been Kissed.

There isn’t actually a specific story Josie is hunting for. Teenagers, the head of her newspaper believes, are unknowable, and the only way to understand them is to observe, and report. Conveniently, Josie is made to wear a secret camera while at school, so that her editor can review the footage and decide where the stories are. With this constant surveillance played in real time on a TV in her editor’s office, Josie’s return to high school becomes in itself a high school film in which her co-workers can lose themselves. They are often seen sitting in front of the TV, enraptured by the everyday dramas and embarrassments of being young again. Prom night becomes date night for tech guy George (Cress Williams), who invites a girl to watch the footage with him like it’s a romantic movie; the whole bullpen tunes in — set with popcorn and wagers — reminiscing about memories of their own prom. Through watching Josie, and, by extension, through the audience watching the film, we are able to vicariously relive a teendom we never experienced: this time, Josie (and the viewer) are popular, this time we get a date to the Prom, this time we are crowned Prom Queen.

Nostalgia is a major driving force of teen films. This is obvious, when you look at the number of films set in the (idealised) past across the history of teen film such as American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1978), Stand By Me (1986), Dazed & Confused (1993) and even Stranger Things (2016 — ) In her essay Tuesday’s Gone: The Nostalgic Teen Film, Lesley Speed wrote nostalgia teen films “reveal [the] tensions between youth and adulthood,” in the “quest to contain adolescence.” Most teen films are made by adults, either in an effort to recapture their own youth, or to contain it. Much like in Never Been Kissed, where high school is infiltrated quite literally to be reported on, youth is observed from an adult perspective. 

Fredric Jameson described nostalgia as “an alarming pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” Although Never Been Kissed is not primarily set in the past, it can still be considered a nostalgia film, precisely because of this inability to deal with the present. No matter how content Josie seems to be in her adult life — a great job with her own office and assistant, her own apartment, hobbies she enjoys — it is not long before she falls deep into her assignment. With the help of Rob, who also enrolls to get another chance at playing baseball, Josie becomes popular, and gets a taste for the life she so sorely missed out on the first time around. It’s almost as if no matter who you are as an adult, there is always a part of you that yearns for high school again. 

There is comfort in all the familiar beats and characters in a high school film, a predictability we can depend on and take in easily when adulthood is so confusing and unknowable. In an article for The Atlantic about Netflix’s recent slew of nostalgia-drenched teen content, Sophie Gilbert wrote, “when looking forward isn’t an option, looking back can be a comfort … evoking a time when hope came more easily.” 

This all is not to say teen films and films about high school aren’t for teens. Grow Up is dedicated to exploring how integral and formative movies and television shows about youth are to the experience of growing up. However, as a teen film scholar/tragic, I often reckon with the realisation that I am only getting older, and eventually, I’ll be Steve Buscemi with a skateboard rocking up with a “how do you do, fellow kids?” But, like Jameson, who outlines the two levels of viewership for a nostalgia film like Star Wars, there can be two levels to a high-school movie: the first, is that young audiences can view the films at face value, to learn from, and on the second level, adults can satisfy a deeper longing to return to and relive the past. However, I think it is also interesting to consider that even as adults, there is still something to learn about ourselves through films focusing on adolescence. 

The return to high school narrative is one we’ve seen time and again, specifically with 17 Again (2009) and 21 Jump Street (2012). Yet what these two films share is their main characters realisation that high school has changed, and is no longer how they once knew it. To stay in the masquerade of youth is not sustainable: eventually, they all return to real life — but not without learning something new about themselves along the way.

At the prom, Josie foils the popular kids’ plan to humiliate the nerdy girl, recognising that some cycles shouldn’t stay the same. She then gives a passionate speech where she blows her cover as a journalist, and implores the high school seniors to realise that there is a bigger world out there, one bigger than prom and high school — which is bold to say when there is so much media, this film included, continually obsessed with the high school space. In the end, Josie gets the guy (which is morally dubious as he was her English teacher and thought she was a minor this entire time), publishes her first article, and leaves high school behind, finally content that she is not Josie Gross-ie anymore.

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Drew Barrymore as Josie-Grosie in Never Been Kissed.

While I have viewed this film so many times over the years (first as a teen and even now in my 20s), Josie’s speech at the prom was never a scene which stuck with me. Rather, I glossed over it as another typical “we should all be kinder to one another” plea that is common in the genre; just another plot point. However, watching the film now as a 25 year-old journalist myself, a specific line hits deeper this time around: 

“Find out who you are, and try not to be afraid of it.”

This year has very much felt like being a teenager again. Much like when I was 17, I have found myself spending my days watching movies in my room with a lack of mobility, dreaming about the day I am able to go out into the world and do glorious things. Watching high school movies is a fun escape, but it also helps me realise that, even though I feel it, I am not who I was in high school anymore. I have new experiences, new friends, new apartments, and an autonomy my younger self dreamed of. Of course, there are so many moments I wish I did differently, but during this period of reflection, nostalgia, and yearning, I am able to recognise that my younger self helped shape who I have — and continue to — become.

Adulthood is full of uncertainty, even before this year hit us like a brick. It is easy to reflect back on high school, and miss the trivialities of youth before you saw the actual effects of your decisions, and hope came more freely. However, looking back distracts us from the now, darling. Nostalgia might be emblematic of an inability to deal with the present, but can also serve as a sharp reminder of who we have become. Watching high school films when you’re no longer in high school satisfies a need to reconcile with our present, or to start the adolescent process over again. Maybe, even, we find out who we are. I’ll try not to be afraid of it.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

The Roads to Maturity and Self-Discovery in ‘Whisper of the Heart’

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Whisper of the Heart (1995) dir. Yoshifumi Kondō. Studio Ghibli.

by Miguel Galang | September 21, 2020

Do you remember what you were like back in high school? I’ll give you a moment’s breath to recover from whatever mortifying flashbacks you may have experienced. Apologies too for putting you through certain trauma so early on. But while we do tend to disassociate from our younger selves for fear of revisiting past embarrassments, I think once in a while it’s good to look back on the roads that led us to where we are right now; the touch-and-go choices we made, the silly dreams we wrestled with — they serve as battle scars, dusty photo albums of a time where life was as simple as being carefree and naïve in the summer of our adolescence. Whisper of the Heart (1995), a Studio Ghibli gem, perfectly encapsulates the fickleness of our youth and our desire to find unique roads that will lead to places of maturity and self-discovery.

“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” Olivia Newton-John croons as her cover of John Denver’s country classic preludes the film. Upon initial viewing, I was curious as to what this specific American song was doing in a Japanese animated feature. Luckily, we aren’t kept on our toes for too long as we meet our main girl, fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima (Yōko Honna). Shizuku has been translating the Denver hit for her friends, writing her own rendition of the tune cleverly titled “Concrete Roads,” which is less heartfelt tribute than it is a keen observation. She is aware of the “concrete roads everywhere” that mantle her hometown along with the “cut down trees” and “filled in valleys,” all brought about by a modernizing Tokyo. For someone as young as Shizuku to make these observations means that she too is feeling the rush of the changing times: especially since it’s her last summer before she prepares for high school entrance exams, and later on, her decisions for the future. Plagued with uncertainty about who she wants to be and what she wants to do with her life, in typical Ghiblian fashion, she unknowingly finds the answers by following a cat.

In her spontaneous cat-stalking, Shizuku meets a cast of new characters and their different niches in life: Shiro (Keiju Kobayashi), a reflective old man and his treasured antique shop; Seiji (Issey Takahashi), her classmate and a curious boy with a crafter’s hands; and a feline nobleman called the Baron (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi), who would eventually become a pivotal character in Shizuku’s journey. As she spends more time in their company, she begins to awaken the sleeping language of her heart; the intuitive dreams that have been whispering to her all along.

Shizuku has been surrounded by ambitious people for most of her young life. In the Tsukishima household alone, you have a mother finishing her graduate studies, an older sister declaring independence as she moves out of the house, and perhaps the most ambitious of them all, a father who rules the world of books (see: librarian). In Shizuku’s eyes, her father represents the culmination of fulfilled ambition: to be surrounded by the world’s greatest stories and hoping that someday, her story will be among those seated on the shelves. There’s even Seiji, who dreams of becoming a master violin-maker in Italy. But what about Shizuku’s ambitions? What role does she serve in this big small world? Inspired by those around her, and her love of books, Shizuku realizes she was born to be a storyteller. Her special craft was already in full display when she used poetry to translate John Denver into the more relatable “Concrete Roads.” It was just a matter of discovering this dream for herself, and yielding to that ambition. Like a figurative lightbulb, the realization illuminates the lost forests that have canopied her mind, and beneath all the undergrowth, a new road familiarizes: The road to maturity and self-discovery.

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Whisper of the Heart (1995)

While summer was the fantasy she relished through the hundreds of books she’s read, the moment is fleeting compared to what the reality has in store for her. Shizuku was destined to write her own stories, to be the heroine of her story. Consumed with this new-found passion and motivation, she conjures up a fantasy starring herself and the Baron, who is in search of his lost love. As for Shizuku’s own lost love, the search looks like staying up until the wee hours of the morning, trying to find the missing words to her chapters; It looks like sacrificing her academic performance and arguing with her parents about going to high school, because the road was once lost, but now it is found and it is good!

There is something euphoric to finally knowing yourself a little better, especially when you’re young and growing up can feel like a race: If you don’t know how to run, you’re never going to get anywhere. We tend to rush things because we think that’s the default route towards greatness. For Shizuku, the race meant finishing her story in time for Seiji’s return from Italy and proving to herself that she is good, that she is worthy of her newfound talent. But it’s a devastating piece of truth to be good at the one thing you know is true to you, and still be not good enough for it. “Wanting isn’t enough. I have to learn more,” she realizes after turning in the pages of her first story to the old man in the antique shop. She learns that to reach the great skies of her imagination, she has to be all the more prepared for its altitudes. It’s a lesson many of us could have learned, when we were young: “You’ve shown me the rough stone you’ve just cut out of the rock,” The old man reassures her, a nugget of hope. “There’s no need to rush now. Take your time and polish it.”

In my imaginary epilogue, Shizuku is all grown up and a master storyteller. She wasn’t an overnight success — she went through the hell that is high school first, then later, she got that college degree. Post-graduate studies may be a bit of a stretch, but hey, her mom did it. Nonetheless, whatever canon she ends up in, she’ll always have the concrete roads of her home that paved the way for her storytelling journey; she’ll always have the patience gained from trusting the process, and the importance of polishing. 

As I journeyed with Shizuku throughout the film, I can’t help but be thrown back into my own journey of maturity and self-discovery in high school. Trying to figure out who I wanted to be among the crowded hallways filled with ambitious people without losing myself in the process. In retrospect, I wish I could’ve taken certain roads instead, made better decisions, because maybe then I could’ve been spared the drama and heartbreak — but that’s cheating the cycle of growing up. I’ve learned that you can’t really blame yourself for being young and foolish no matter how much we despise ourselves in the past. When you’re young, nobody expects you to know everything, even though deep down our pride says otherwise, and that’s just us being passionate idealists. We take such huge leaps of faith and fall the hardest because we know what we’re made of and know what we’re capable of, even if our best laid plans didn’t exactly translate into full blown pictures. Nevertheless, the roads we took will always be there, like an old memory stashed away in our drawers, to remind us of how far we’ve gone and how great we’ve grown since we, like Shizuku, listened to the whispers of our hearts.

Miguel is a writer and a journalism undergrad at the University of Santo Tomas. He’s a relatively chill guy except when it comes to film and Taylor Swift — he goes all-out. You can follow him on Twitter @miguelmgalang.

Editors’ Letter: New Beginnings

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By Claire White & Odalis Garcia Gorra | September 21, 2020

Every year around this time, a shift occurs. Day and night are of equal length, and the earth moves into a new season. For Odalis, this signifies autumn and for Claire, this means spring. When we decided to create Grow Up this release date seemed cosmically apt. A change of pace for the two of us. And especially a change in how we think and talk about youth on screen. 

Our love of Glee and shared late-night/early morning discussions of the show on Tumblr dot com brought us together. Now, many years from those moments, we are still having very similar conversations. Maybe with a little more nuance than our 15-year old selves could allow, but that was foundational in our understanding of how media representations impacts us in meaningful ways. And now, with pandemic times running amok, we wanted a reminder to tap into our younger selves. To understand what it is that brings us joy at an elemental level. May this seasonal shift spark glee into our lives.

Every two months we will have an ‘Issue’ based around a certain theme. These Issues will highlight topics which are important and frequent in narratives about youth. There is no one way of growing up, and while some concepts are universal and reocurring, the way we relate to them can be quite different. By opening the conversation to a diverse range of perspectives, we hope to explore coming-of-age and adolescence in wide-reaching ways.

While there will be a call for pitches for future themes, New Beginnings was specially curated out of our pool of pitches. That we were able to fill the Issue this way just goes to show how prevalent new beginnings are to the coming-of-age genre and growing up. Youth can be a time when everything is new and exciting! It’s a time of self-discovery, either in discovering your purpose (The Roads to Maturity and Self-Discovery in ‘Whisper of the Heart’ by Miguel Galang), recognizing a part of your identity you did not realize before (Me and Jo March: Locating Queerness at The Orchard House by Anna Burnham), or daringly discover the beginnings of a new love that will span a lifetime (Analog Love in a Digital World: Re-watching ‘Before Sunrise’ 25 Years On by Sam Nicholls). But youth is also daunting, either by being on the precipice of the unknown annals of adulthood (Growing Up with “Scream”: A Closer Look at High School Musical 3’s Most Dramatic Song by Katherine Clowater), or representing a time where hope came easier, and thus is something we return to, searching for a semblance of a do-over (‘Never Been Kissed,’ and Why We Still Watch High School Movies in Adulthood by Claire White).

This is also our New Beginning. Our years-long friendship culminated into a website dedicated to our love for a genre which not only brought us together all those years ago, but we are also passionate about discussing and exploring in the critical and journalistic space. A genre worthy of love and attention. By exploring the films and television shows which helped us grow up, we hope Grow Up can inspire others to revisit their childhood, or be inspired to rethink the critical value of the teen and coming-of-age genres. To really dive deep into the conversations that otherwise would not be happening. We hope to celebrate and provide a space for which previously did not exist (where else can you write essays about Disney Channel Original Movies?) for writers established and emerging.

We are excited about this project, something we wish was around when we were growing up. We hope you are excited, too. 


C + O 

Claire & Odalis
Grow Up Co-Founders

P.S: While we were editing and setting this website up, a lot of hours of The OC were watched. Talk about new beginnings, Ryan Atwood.