20th Century Women, Moonlight, Edge of Seventeen, Manchester by the Sea, American Honey

We’ve barely met Elle Fanning’s Julie in 20th Century Women when she explains that she doesn’t like her picture taken. And yet, she doesn’t turn away from the camera. In fact, she seems to pose just a little bit, in a moment that underscores Julie’s contradictions. She likes to think she’s “crazy,” but she’s far too self-consciously wild to actually be unhinged. She’s a girl who sneaks out of her house nearly every night, but she also parrots her therapist mother. She sleeps in the same bed as her best friend, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), but she won’t sleep with him. “People that age—they’re 15 and 17 in the story—what is that but a ball of confusion rolling quickly down a hill?” Women’s writer-director Mike Mills asks The A.V. Club.

This year’s films were filled with confused youngsters: Aside from Jamie and Julie, there’s also Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) in The Edge Of Seventeen; Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Manchester By The Sea; Star (Sasha Lane) in American Honey; and Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in Moonlight. Thanks to sensitive writing and performances, each of these characters transcends the teen archetype, the actors offering aching portrayals of people in that angst-ridden age range free from archness or precociousness. And through their adolescent struggles came a refreshing maturation of what the “teen movie” can be.

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Technically speaking, of those aforementioned titles, only The Edge Of Seventeen would probably be characterized as a “teen movie.” It’s a classic coming-of-age dramedy that charts a simple crisis for Steinfeld’s Nadine, who’s sent reeling when her perfect-seeming brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), starts dating her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine considers this the ultimate betrayal, but she’s too far up her own ass to realize that neither Darian nor Krista have any intention of hurting her. In her self-absorption and self-loathing, she can only see the relationship as a personal slight.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig commendably doesn’t ask her audience to believe that Nadine, with her movie star looks, has been misunderstood and ignored by her peers the way other, truer loners are. (She’s not Emma Stone in Easy A, in other words.) Instead, Craig makes it clear that Nadine’s loneliness is self-inflicted, a result of her being both captivated and disgusted by her own reflection. In one early scene, a drunk, vomiting Nadine tells Krista she doesn’t like who she is. “I’ve got to spend the rest of my life being myself,” she says grimly. It’s easy to want to shake her, to tell her she wouldn’t be so miserable if she would just stop talking and listen to what others are saying. But Steinfeld captures the agony of hating being in one’s own skin so deftly that you can’t help but sympathize.

“It’s an age that is just incredibly messy and where you’re feeling so many different things, and all the different emotions together can sometimes feel unbearable,” Craig explains to The A.V. Club. “Living with yourself can feel unbearable, because you’re feeling so much and at, like, a level 10. The volume is cranked up on every emotion.” True to that, the movie opens with Nadine melodramatically telling her wiseass teacher (Woody Harrelson) she’s going to commit suicide.

Craig went out and talked to actual high school students to confirm that her memories of the age still stood, and they did. It’s an empathetic approach she applied to everyone, not just Nadine. Darian is initially presented as a happy-go-lucky jock, but he’s in pain, too; Nadine just hasn’t bothered to pay attention.

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If Darian ever met Patrick Chandler from Manchester By The Sea, they would probably be friends—even if the movies they are in could not be more different. Manchester is Kenneth Lonergan’s brutal portrait of grief, while The Edge Of Seventeen is lighthearted at its core. Still, both feature two agreeable, nuanced bros, popular kids whose untold depths aren’t revealed simply by the fact that they read Kerouac or write poetry. Patrick is just one in a long line of Lonergan’s fully inhabited young characters, a lineage that includes the Gen X burnouts of his 1996 play This Is Our Youth and the protagonist of 2011’s Margaret, a teenager who witnesses a tragedy on the Upper West Side. Lonergan’s secret, as it were, is that he doesn’t treat teens differently than any other character in his works, letting them all speak in the patter of the everyday.

When The A.V. Club recently asked him how he approaches teens, Lonergan said that he simply remembers that period so vividly. Manchester’s Patrick isn’t autobiographical, however: “I wouldn’t have wanted to be a hockey-playing brawler, but I would have loved to have had two girlfriends,” he said. But in Lonergan’s rendering, even Patrick’s swagger feels unremarkable. Life is working out for him, and he doesn’t want to mess with that. It’s why he invites his friends over to hang out just after learning that his father has died—which isn’t to say he’s callous or impervious to sadness. In fact, he breaks down when he sees a frozen chicken, suddenly recalling that his dad’s body will have to be frozen until the ground thaws for burial in the spring. He’s still just figuring out how to process his emotions.

He’s also horny. In fact, all of these characters are. Edge Of Seventeen’s Nadine sends a Facebook message to a boy saying she wants him to put his mouth on her tits. In 20th Century Women, Jamie lusts after Julie to no avail, while Julie herself is messing around with a bunch of boys, letting her sexual energies loose in ways that feel empowering and demoralizing in tandem. Where a more crass movie would have had those two hook up at the end, Mills’ doesn’t. Instead, Julie rejects Jamie, and he, reacting with the fitting entitlement of a teen boy, becomes angry and storms off. “At one point in the writing they did have sex, and it just wasn’t great,” Mills says. “But I love that she just sort of shut him down. The thing [she says] about, ‘that’s your version of me, that’s not really me’ was really important.” The moment also allowed Mills to “out” himself as a man writing about women. “It was neat that not only was she sort of empowering herself and declining sex and putting him back in his box,” he explains, “she was also doing that to me in a way, as the author.”

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Like Julie, American Honey’s Star—who leaves home to travel the country selling magazines in Andrea Arnold’s infectious drama—tests how her sexuality can serve her when it comes to both pleasure and personal gain. Star stands apart in that she exists in a world totally free from adult supervision, but she is also trying to discover what kind of person she wants to be and whether she should follow what few rules are laid out for her. Arnold, like Craig, did her research, heading out with a “mag crew” to learn about her subjects.

But Jamie is a deeply personal creation for Mills—just as Chiron was for Tarell Alvin McCraney when he wrote the play that eventually became Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. That film confronts and tweaks the stereotypes of young black men in each of its three sections. Seen through different eyes, teenaged Chiron could be denied his humanity and described as “no angel,” just as Michael Brown carelessly was. Here, he’s deeply conflicted, and he’s become guarded and introverted as he struggles with his queerness. In one glorious scene, in which Chiron stumbles through his first sexual encounter with his friend Kevin, he’s able to emerge from his protective armor of silence. McCraney took the dialogue from his own childhood, and Jenkins preserved it.

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“I think a lot of times, when we think about teenage years, we think about how we think we remember them, and so there’s something hazy about them,” McCraney tells The A.V. Club. “The quality of them isn’t as exact, but I remember those moments are sort of crystal in my mind, and I wanted them to be sharp. I didn’t want them to feel like the haze of memory. I wanted them to feel like the present.”

All of these youngsters exist in the unnerving period of adolescent uncertainty. Of teenagers, McCraney says, “They are in a battle to be unaware. There’s a part of them that wants to enjoy the idyllic understanding of what it means to be a child, and yet they’re being forced in many ways to confront harsh realities, especially those of us who grew up with limited access and in underprivileged neighborhoods.” Nadine, Patrick, Julie, and Jamie have far more privileged circumstances than Star or Chiron, but McCraney’s point about striving for the naiveté they may have once had rings true for all of them. All are wrestling with who they will become, and in only some cases we get to see what happens.

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“I’m not super in love with teenagery-ness,” Mills says. “[It’s] very interesting because they’re kind of like adults, but it’s very low pixels and very raw and opened up. In a way, it’s great for a filmmaker, because you have more access to internal lives. As we get older, we hide everything much more and internaliz[e] everything much more.” These are unfinished, unfettered people, whose circumstances aren’t extraordinary. But watching them this year, in these movies, they nevertheless felt revelatory.