Nostalgic flicks like ''A River Runs Through It'' and ''This Boy's Life'' don't interest young audiences

By Ty Burr
Updated May 14, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Remember when we were kids, and Mom and Dad would gather us round to tell stories about their own youthful days, laboring under the well-intentioned delusion that they were handing us life lessons on a plate? Don’t look now, but Hollywood has gone into the parenting business, with a spate of coming-of-age movies that are as high-minded as Dad’s little anecdotes — and as irrelevant.

Granted, it may seem the best of times if you’re a parent seeking thought-provoking movies to share with the spawn. This Boy’s Life details the growing pains of teen Leonard DiCaprio as he faces down wicked stepfather Robert De Niro. The Sandlot follows a group of disparate boys as they bond through baseball. Jack the Bear is about the perils of having an irresponsible single parent, while last year’s A River Runs Through It is about the perils of having a reckless sibling. Swing Kids shows how adolescents will find in music the meaning their daily lives deny them. Universal themes, no question about it.

Yet if you’re a kid being dragged to these movies for their messages, this is probably the worst of times. Why? Because they’re tales told from the time capsule. This Boy’s Life takes place in the 1950s, Sandlot in the ’60s, Jack the Bear in the ’70s, while River rolls back to the early 1900s, and the rebel youth in Swing Kids fight their Nazi peers with big band music. All of which may be compelling to the filmmakers and their peers but none of which has any bearing on the problems of your average 1990s adolescent.

What’s missing? For one thing, the fuller knowledge (and accompanying confusion) that modern teens have about sex — a by-product of MTV explicitness and AIDS-awareness messages. Second, technological savvy: Kids are better prepared for the information age than their parents are because they’ve grown up speaking computerese. Third, the premature cynicism that comes from being bombarded by media from infancy on. These you won’t find in the new coming-of-age movies. Or in any movie, for that matter.

That’s because the folks in Hollywood are primarily making these films for themselves. The generation that turned the movie industry on its head by making Easy Rider a hit in 1969 is now in the executive seat, and it’s having a wee mid-life crisis. For filmmakers contemplating their love handles in the mirror, movies like The Sandlot and Jack the Bear are youth potions, deluxe recapturings of the child within, instant nostalgia that sands the edge off memory. The true intent of these films — the pining for and probing of a ”simpler time” — is revealed in the mannered obsessiveness of their period detail.

So where does that leave the Generation X’ers, and the teenysomethings, and the generations after them? Where are their stories, their points of view? On CD, often: It doesn’t cost much to start a band, whereas serious cash and chutzpah are required to get a movie going. And the few filmmaking whiz kids out there — Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Tamra Davis — don’t seem particularly interested in the coming-of-age genre. And why should they? It’s child’s play they’re only too eager to leave behind.

Wait’ll they have kids of their own.