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Coming of age with Beanie Feldstein

Lily Sheldon explores how Beanie Feldstein, cinema's new, 'oldest friend', is changing the face of the coming-of-age film, helping young women (and Hollywood) into adulthood.

All teenagers hit that age where they are suddenly on the verge of adulthood whilst still clinging onto what is left of their childhood. When it was my turn to encounter such “minor” identity questions, cinema was undergoing a similar sort of coming of age. Having long graduated from the overplayed boy meets girl narratives of the “Brat Pack” 80s, and tired of the batty, boyfriend-orientated chicks, central to Clueless and Wild Child in the 90s and 2000’s, Hollywood began to hold a more honest mirror up to coming-of-age of women. Beanie Feldstein was in the reflection.

The first time I experienced Feldstein on screen was on Mother’s Day in year 12. My sister was back from uni and we thought we’d be good daughters and treat my mum to a cinema trip to see the new film Ladybird. She would pay of course, in exchange for some quality time with us. However, by the end of the film it was clear that I was the one who had been treated. The quality time had been shared between me, myself and I; ninety-four minutes to reflect on growing up.

Ladybird is that angsty teen who wants to get as far away from her Catholic girl’s school, her neurotic mother and her hometown, Sacramento, as possible. Inevitably, she must leave home in order to realise how much she appreciates it. Of salient importance to me, however, was her organic friendship with Beanie Feldstein’s Julie. 

Beanie’s small-town character is in many ways a foil to Ladybird’s fiery rage, but their friendship is timeless. They lie in the bathroom of their school talking about masturbation, Julie accompanies Ladybird to see her sad-boy love interest Kyle (Timothy Chalemet) and his band, and when Ladybird tries to social climb it is Julie that brings her back down to earth. Julie is very much the observer in this friendship, but her loyalty demonstrates the timeless bond between neighbourhood best friends who have been through it all together. My mother and sister left the cinema with tears in their eyes due to the film’s relatability and attention to the human reminders of home that remain with you when you’ve outgrown all the rest of it. I was yet to truly live out this lesson. 

The next year, I took a break from A-level revision and gap year planning to watch Booksmart. In contrast to the timid character of Julie, Feldstein’s Molly steals centre stage as she embodies the try-hard Gen-Z teenager. She is focused on academic success, her role as class president and her best friend Amy. In a Superbad-esque framework, Amy and Molly realise that they have given up their social lives to get into Ivy Leagues whilst their partying peers have still somehow managed to score places at Yale.

As the film progresses, we are witnesses to what is basically a love affair between Feldstein’s uptight and controlling Molly and her kinder and sweeter friend Amy. The girls try to cram four years of fun into one night. It is as if, in this one night, we experience a lifelong friendship: they dance it out on the street before going to school, they have compliment wars before going to the party (“call the police because there has been a {beauty} emergency”), they fight at their first high school party, but the most poignant and most heart wrenching scene is when Molly says goodbye to Amy at the airport. Set to a backdrop of a breakup song we witness the dramatic parting of two soul mates, childhood best friends who separate in order to independently start the next chapter of their lives.

Having watched all three versions of A Cinderella story growing up, I thought it would be my Prince Charming who I’d be most sad to say goodbye to when I left home for my gap year. It was, in fact, the parting of paths with my own childhood best friend, my own Beanie Feldstein, that resulted in the true separation anxiety. For me, Feldstein represents that unconventional but yet oh so conventional friendship, she reveals how often cinema and society undercuts the true hardship of the end to a female friendship. It may not be romance but that is because it is something so much more. 

When I came back from my 12 months away from home, I watched Caitlin Moran’s almost autobiographical film How to Build a Woman, in which Beanie Feldstein plays 16-year-old working class girl from Wolverhampton, Johanna, who reinvents herself by becoming a journalist at a rock magazine. In this movie, Feldstein is as daring as Johanna’s black top-hat; she brings to life the fresh concept of a sexually empowered female character who has unconventional beauty and no sexual experiences. As teenagers, we are constantly, subconsciously reinventing ourselves until we find an identity that fits and for Johanna this, at times, meant wearing bin-bags and confessing her love to a rock star. Far more reflective of your everyday girl than most young-adult female leads, such as Elle in Clueless or Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, Feldstein’s character is guided by her ambition and that alone. 

I see myself and my peers stealing bits and pieces from Beanie’s Feldstein’s varying portrayals of women coming of age. Whether it’s the timid, side-lined best friend Julie, or the dominant and ambitious Molly, Feldstein’s characters have expanded the definition of what it means to approach womanhood. They turn the typically sexualised female protagonist on its head and are sexually empowered without the direct involvement of any one man. With all three of Feldstein’s movies passing the Bechdel Test, they place value not on size or beauty or men but rather on character and the great power of human connection.

Feldstein’s women, however, did not come out of nowhere, they were written into existence by fantastic feminist artists such as Greta Gerwig and Caitlin Moran who are now taking back control of defining womanhood. Imagine that, women writing women has actually given birth to realistic portrayals women gasps. Not only did Beanie Feldstein help me come of age, she also helped Hollywood join me in adulthood, and join the 21st century. We live in a time when growing up is particularly hard, but without our soul sisters, the hormonal transition to womanhood would surely be much harder. 

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