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Brutal Youth Fest: Dark coming-of-age stories return to the big screen

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Lynskey JGL Theron
(L-R) Everett Collection(2); Phil Caruso

“Those days are gone forever … I should just let ’em go.”

No, Don Henley. To hell with that. Sometimes you’ve got to reach back to those glory days with all your might and pull them right back into the here and now — which is exactly what the American Cinematheque and your friendly, neighborhood EW writer are hoping to do with this weekend’s double-feature film fest Youth Is Brutal: Coming-of-Age Films.

Sinister tales of growing up (or not) make up this three-night event at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, beginning on Friday with back-to-back showings of Peter Jackson’s haunting Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Stand By Me (1986), Rob Reiner’s classic adaptation of the Stephen King friendship saga.

Here’s a rundown of the movies returning to the big screen, with details at the bottom about how to win free tickets …

The American Cinematheque previously teamed with Entertainment Weekly on last year’s CapeTown Film Fest , and this time they came to yours truly (the Oscar writer and purveyor of Marvel and Star Wars stories) to brainstorm themes for another series.

Since I just wrote a dark coming-of-age novel called Brutal Youth, I proposed a collection of similar tales: films about desperate young heroes, friendships both good and bad, the aftermath of teenage rebellion and defiance.

Friday, June 20

Heavenly Creatures

Stand By Me

In one film, a group of friends go on a quest to find a dead body. In the other, two star-crossed friends create the dead body. It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures hit theaters, but even harder to believe that 28 have passed since we hiked the railroad tracks with the four boys from Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.

I paired these two films because they both combine moments of unparalleled sweetness with bracing, stark reality. There are horror elements in each, but the young heroes find release from their growing pains in fantasy realms — the unforgettable clay kingdom of the Fourth World in Heavenly Creatures, and the gross-out shenanigans of Lard-Ass and his pie-eating contest in Stand By Me.

Bring a friend. You might need one.


Q&A Guest:  We’ll be joined by Melanie Lynskey, who starred as the morose young girl who blossoms when she falls for her dynamic but dangerous new friend. She was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when Peter Jackson discovered her, and has gone on to appear in The Informant!, Up in the Air, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and as the playful and menacing Rose on CBS’s Two and a Half Men.

Saturday, June 21


The Chocolate War

When people don’t like you, they get in your way. When they don’t care about you, they let you get in your own way. These two films each showcase both that insidious pitfall of growing up, when you could use a hand — but often get one in your face.

Rian Johnson’s Brick (2006), is a neo-noir, a detective story set in high school, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a boy trying to unravel the mystery of a classmate’s murder, and Lukas Haas as the ethereal, otherworldly Pin, who may hold (some of) the answers. And The Chocolate War (1989) is director Keith Gordon’s tale of resistance at an oppressive Catholic school, with one boy refusing to join the annual candy fundraising drive … and finding the weight of his entire world crashing down as powerful forces try to change his mind.

Each has a literary foundation. Brick has elements of Raymond Chandler’s great hardboiled mystery novels, and The Chocolate War is based on the best-selling novel by Robert Cormier, which was YA before there was YA.


Q&A Guest: Composer Nathan Johnson (whose other credits include Looper and Don Jon), will be joining us to demonstrate some of the unusual instruments he used to create the unsettling score for Brick. He’ll even bring the Metallophone for a demonstration. “It’s basically wind chimes laid flat and played by jiggling a chopstick inside the bells to produce the melody of ghostly tones,” he explains.

Sunday, June 22

Young Adult

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It hasn’t been too long since each of these were in theaters but both have developed a kind of cult status in the few years since they were released. Each is a fearsome and funny look at growing up, and show the strength of friendship (or lack thereof.)

“That girl you hated in high school … is back,” promises the tagline to Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron as a YA novelist who returns to her hometown to settle some adolescent scores, aided by the boy she was never nice to (Patton Oswalt.) While it’s not technically about teenagers, it stands as one of my favorite coming-of-age stories because it shows that the process of growing up doesn’t end when you, well … grow up.

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we follow an introverted young boy (Logan Lerman) as two fiery and provocative friends (Ezra Miller and Emma Watson) bring the sunlight he needs to bloom. Stephen Chbosky’s novel has touched readers for more than 15 years, and he fought hard to retain that vision in the film version, which he adapted and directed himself.

Some movies — like some classmates — you reunite with after a decade. Others, like these ones, you can’t wait to see again ASAP.


Q&A Guest: Young Adult director Jason Reitman is known for taking characters people shouldn’t like (a tobacco lobbyist, a guy who fires people) and making audiences love them. He’ll join us to discuss why we like “unlikable” characters, and how books inspire movies and vice versa.

Finally … FREE STUFF!!!

If you’re in the L.A. area and want to come to the screenings, here’s how to win some free tickets: Call in to EW Radio’s “Behind the Scenes” show on Wednesday, June 18 at 3 p.m. Pacific. You can find it on Siriums XM, channel 105.

Tell us about your favorite dark coming-of-age story, and if you get chosen to be on the air we’ll give you two tickets to opening night.

Keep this number handy: 855E-WEEKLY (855-393-3559)

For more info: