The Falling: The anxiety and fear of becoming an adult, discovering yourself and leaving your youth

GROWING up can be hard but accepting change and letting go of your youth can be just as difficult. Natalie Ng opens up about the uncertainty that comes with becoming an adult, especially for girls, and how that has been played into the new film, The Falling, starring Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams.

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Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (Florence Pugh) in The Falling, directed by Carol Morley. Image supplied.

I remember once reading a report that claimed the age of maturity for youths now was at the age of 25. At the time of reading that, I breathed a sigh of relief – I still had a few more years left before I had to be an ‘adult’!

But earlier when I was 15, all I ever wanted to do was to grow up, leave home and be free from my parents. It is perhaps this interesting and contradictory notion of wanting to grow up too fast, but also the unwillingness to leave behind one’s childhood, that has always drawn me to coming-of-age and high school films, especially since I’m still a young person myself.

With a few years left in my ‘teenagehood’, I am glad we’re now seeing a new era of films that have attempted to tread new ground in the coming-of-age genre, particularly for girls.

In the past year, films such as Respire, The Sisterhood of the Night, Girlhood and recently The Falling have contributed to a growth of coming-of-age genre films for girls that focus on friendships and identity over finding a boyfriend.

When we’re young, we’re taught to believe that we have to accomplish certain goals by a certain time: attend university at 18, graduate by 21 and be successful in our careers at 30.

Starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, The Falling is a hypnotic, beautiful, disturbing and confusing film that revolves around a Catholic all-girls’ high school in the late 1960s. The combination of burgeoning sexuality and teenage angst collided with repressive authority at that era to form a unique film that focuses not so much on plot, but rather a restless mood that can be expressed through details. After all, being a young person is often a very restless, disturbing and confusing time.

When we’re young, we’re taught to believe that we have to accomplish certain goals by a certain time: attend university at 18, graduate by 21 and be successful in our careers at 30. It certainly contributes to the anxiety many young people feel, especially once they discover that they don’t particularly care for their chosen career or simply don’t have the passion for it because that path was expected of them.

The most troubling stories I hear are the ones where people get into a relationship without knowing whether they are really in love or just like the idea of being in a relationship.

But for girls, the pressure of growing up is even greater.

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Image supplied.

The media gives girls all these milestones: first kiss at 14, get a boyfriend by 15, get married and have kids all before 30 and, if possible, be successful at their jobs at the same time. The bar is set so impossibly high that many young women simply suffer because of all these expectations that society as a whole has shaped onto them at an early age.

In an article for The Atlantic, writer Kelsey McKinney says, “there are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don’t take road trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men”. The pressure is on for boys as well, don’t get me wrong, but they at least seem to have more chances to mess up at that stage of their life, especially when several forms of media basically tell them that maybe it’s okay for them to screw up and that they’re not alone.

For girls? Not so much.

When I was 11 and 12, high school and coming-of-age films and stories were mythical; Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You… they were almost like fairy tales! I couldn’t wait until I reached my later teen years, those magical ages between 15 and 18, thanks to what I was promised by films.

Once I reached those ages, by then these films became almost like snapshots of my own experiences. Films like Mean Girls and An Education made me feel relieved to be able to connect to these characters for what they shared with me.

I was still trying to come to terms with growing up, leaving behind my childhood and wanted to discover who I really was and what I really wanted to pursue.

But still, coming-of-age films for girls back then were being dominated by a need to find romance, and that just wasn’t what I was looking for. I was still trying to come to terms with growing up, leaving behind my childhood and wanted to discover who I really was and what I really wanted to pursue.

Thankfully, this has started to change with newer stories that now better reflect upon the experiences of growing up and becoming your own person.

In The Falling, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh) represent the internal struggle of so many students who, like myself, want to grow up and experience life immediately, yet are unable to do so because their own personal growth shows that they’re not ready to undertake such challenges just yet. Abbie wants to grow up and be an adult but is clearly ill-equipped for adulthood while Lydia represents the ‘normal’ teenage experience: confused, rebellious and possessed by the attitude of trying everything new.

Unlike most coming-of-age films that tend to pick one attitude over another or want to teach young people ‘a lesson’, The Falling’s strength is that it does not pass judgement or give clear answers to the motivations of the characters and the events that transpire. It just shows stories and people as they are, and how we make sense of it is up to us. Very much like life, we are left to figure the film out for ourselves. And as university and international students, being thrown into the deep end to figure things out on our own is yet another thing we have to face head on.

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When I look at films like The Falling, I realise that even as young adults (or ‘new adults’, a newly coined term from the publishing industry used to categorise the university/college-going age group), it seems like we, the tertiary-educated students, have perhaps not grown fundamentally at all.

I believe many of us still haven’t left behind many of these hardships as a young and new adult – those feelings of uncertainty and struggle in taking on new responsibilities that come with adulthood. Sure, as we grow they’re no longer as overwhelming as when we were teenagers, but these fears and uncertanties also don’t go away, and I don’t think they ever go away; we just learn how to cope with it better.

Although I feel I’ve grown up, I am still very much finding myself and still have plenty more I need to learn as I navigate my way around adulthood. I am sure so many of us feel the same way too.

I believe many of us still haven’t left behind many of these hardships as a young and new adult – those feelings of uncertainty and struggle in taking on new responsibilities that come with adulthood.

All we can do, is to continue doing our best to find where we fit in the world. There are no clear answers for all of us but what we can do is figure out what works best for us and take comfort that whatever we are feeling and experiencing, someone out there has also been through it before. 

In times of uncertainty and trepidation, it’s best to reach out to someone and ask for help. But if that isn’t an option and you’re really feeling alone or have no one to turn about your fears with, I always find that fiction as an escape really helps. I find myself in fiction all the time with stories and characters that help me know that I am not alone in this world.

I just hope we continue to see more more stories that better reflect the fears that all young people face as part of growing up.

The Falling will be screening exclusively at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) from June 29 – July 26. For more information about the film, visit ACMI’s website

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