All directors have their thematic or genre fixations, but there aren’t many who continually return to the coming of age story. Levine hasn’t reached the output of Hughes yet, but he is following in the master’s footsteps. Each of his films have been about teens and young adults in transition. His characters all begin their journeys stunted in some way. To paraphrase a line from The Wackness, they’re unable to do the things they need to do to become who they need to be. Which is why something bad happens to them. Levine believes that that growth in life is catalyzed by pain and (to impose on The Wackness again) you have to “embrace your pain, make it a part of you.”
Levine doesn’t believe that life’s hard knocks simply introduce disillusionment and cold reality to youths, and that’s what amounts to maturity. Like Hughes, he believes the challenging experiences his characters go through – death, heartbreak, cancer – push them out of stagnation and toward change. They grow into a better existential place where they can be better versions of themselves and more at peace with who they are.
Luke in The Wackness is a lonely, depressed teenager full of the typical swagger that masks deep insecurities, inexperience, and fear of emotional vulnerability. In the end he’s happy with who he is, confident about his emotions and displaying them, and accepting of the hardships life can dole out. Adam from 50/50 is the quintessential compromiser. He’s too shy to confront people or pursue his own happiness — whether that means asserting what he wants in a romantic relationship or asking a friend to quiet down. By the time the film wraps up, Adam has learned to express his true feelings, speak up for himself, and stop being such a pushover. There are a lot of reasons why the last scene of 50/50 is perfect, but most of all, it’s because it perfectly encapsulates Levine’s firm belief in the value and momentous significance of growing up. Like Hughes, he is an optimist. Levine believes his characters can handle pain and hardship — and in fact, that struggling a bit might be the best thing that could ever happen to you.
R (Nicholas Hoult), the zombie lead in Levine’s latest, Warm Bodies, is no exception. He too bears all the trademarks of a quintessential Levine-ian protagonist. He’s a stuck, depressed, lonely outsider who is unable to do the things he needs to do in order to become who he wants to be. But what distinguishes R from Adam and Luke is his desire – more than anything – for a kind of coming of age change. He’s introspectively insecure and existentially self-aware enough to know he doesn’t want to be this way – reduced to hurting people and living a life with no hope.
R’s challenge isn’t something bad that happens to him. It’s something bad that he does. In his desperate desire to “feel a little less dead,” he consumes the brains of Julie’s (Teresa Palmer) boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco). As a result, he absorbs Perry’s memories and falls in love with her. He — like a lot of kids — makes an impetuous mistake. It’s a mistake, however, that catalyzes his emotional growth. His challenge then isn’t heartbreak or death, but the very adult challenge of not only taking ownership of his actions, but accepting the consequences. It’s painful – as all of Levine’s challenges for his heroes are. But it’s also the only way that R can become the real human being he longs to be again.
It can be difficult to temper the treacly nature of such stories, which is why it’s remarkable that Warm Bodies, The Wackness and 50/50 aren’t even remotely saccharine. It speaks to Levine’s greatest talent: his assured handling of tones in sentimental materials. He manages to infuse them with emotional authenticity instead of manipulation. He has a deft feel for these characters that grounds the dramatic heights of their experiences in reality and emotional honesty. What’s more, Levine provides his characters with a rare internal understanding, not artistic distance. There’s no doubt that something like Stand By Me is one of the great coming of age films, but you never get the sense Rob Reiner is doing anything but telling a story. Most directors find a way to relate or connect with their characters, but Levine has a unique ability to transfer himself into them in a way that comes out on screen.
It’s why we can buy Levine’s persistent belief that — as R puts it — “every great thing starts out a little scary.” It’s something that echoes what Luke also realizes in The Wackness when he tells his friend, Dr. Squires: “You can’t just give up. Life is hard, and it’s full of pain … but we take it because there’s good stuff to.” Those epiphanies might be, as Squires tells Luke, “really fucking cheesy,” but the remarkable thing about Jonathan Levine is that not only does he believe every word — he makes you believe it too.