Growing Pains

Living in liminality

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I always think of what my own coming-of-age cliche would look like; what colors would create the backdrop for my character, which tracks would accompany me through my quotidienne questioning. 

It looks so simple on screen — just two teens on a train. Intimacy forms a cloud around the two, fogging up the glass that separates the couple’s compartment from the blur of Italian countryside outside. They are literally plugged in, one pair of wire headphones hanging in the small space between them, bringing their foreheads to meet so the connection isn’t broken. The two rehearse words to their favorite track; neither are talented singers, but their soft charming chanting captures the innocence in their adolescence. 

This is one of the first scenes in the concluding episode of Luca Guadagnino’s recent miniseries, “We Are Who We Are,” which weaves together the storylines of two American teenagers on a U.S. Army base in Chioggia, Italy, as they navigate their identities and positions in relation to the rest of their small world. 

The couple on the train, 14-year-old Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamon), have spent the first seven episodes forming their close friendship: They are each others’ allies in conflicts over sexuality, parent-child relationships and the general anguish associated with growing up. But in the final episode, the two escape into a train carriage, which functions as a space of their own. 

Faced with the care Fraser and Caitlin have for each other, everything else fades into background noise. There is only the two of them in this one poignant moment as they leave familiarity for a sense of freedom. The pair’s anxious titillation in that train carriage becomes abstract, though I’m unsure whether it’s in light of the show they’re traveling to or their homes they’re running away from — if only for a night. Regardless of the cause of their excitement, Fraser and Caitlin sit in the liminal space, which oddly excites them. 

Guadagnino almost too perfectly prepared this scene to invoke the liminality between adolescence and adulthood. In the space of the train carriage, Fraser and Caitlin could process all the feelings of transition from one physical place to another, from one stage of adolescence to the next. All their growing pains were held within the carriage, to be processed alongside the other. When the doors slid shut, Fraser and Caitlin found themselves far from Chioggia and comfortable with the uncertainty of their relationships, identities and sexualities. 

In all the coming-of-age scenes I’ve borne witness to on the screen, the characters typically enter into liminal uncertainty with questions already in mind. Perhaps this enables them to navigate the liminal space: There is already an end in sight, giving them a way to claw their way out of uncertainty into understanding. 

In my own narrative, the questions aren’t as straightforward. The temporality too isn’t linear — I don’t have the pressure of a two-hour movie to leave the liminal space and matriculate into maturity. In some way, I’ve guiltily taken my time in hanging out here, instead of pushing through to the other side. Static and stagnant is comfortable. 

I myself never experienced growing pains as seen on screen, and not just because I’ve stayed the same height since the eighth grade. The end of my adolescence never showed itself in one scene, in one specific place. I never found myself in a train carriage, in between places on a road to what was next. I can’t even make the argument that I’ve grown out of my teenage tendencies. 

Even in spite of my current employment and semi-self sufficiency, I believe that my internal coming-of-age story has not happened yet, and I’d like to prolong its exposition. I’ve tasted a touch of bitter growing pains and like a petulant teenager, I put my foot down and refused to process those emotions and face adulthood. I’d rather sit in the stillness of adolescence, which exists within a time frame often relegated to the past. 

To exit the liminal space is to heavily interact with a zone of encounter where all that is repressed rises to the surface, ready to be grappled with. I suppose that’s a part of growing up, where the growing pains really start to kick in. I just wish my narrative would be more clearly laid out by an omniscient director who curates coming-of-age scenes in a clear, linear timeline. 

However, the seemingly simple narratives come into conflict with the complex emotions and identities of each character. They might be in the prime position to enter into the liminal space as an adolescent and leave an adult, but it doesn’t mean all internal turbulence is resolved after the screen turns blank. Fraser and Caitlin’s train carriage is a cocoon, but that protective shell disintegrates the minute the train arrives at their destination. I suppose in that way, my patchy coming-of-age story takes into account the reality flashing outside the train windows, keeping me in liminality for longer — and yet, for the better.

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.