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The Intersection of Youth and Pop Culture at Sundance

Editor's note: An Banh is one of four recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2014. The scholarship meant he participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.

As separate entities, youth and pop culture reside in two very different arenas of time and relevance, but they peacefully and cheerfully coexist in a modern upbringing. As a youth, you turn away from your parents and turn toward music, movies, television and fashion trends to cope with the mental and emotional turmoil that necessarily accompanies adolescence. Age is enveloped in the embrace of the zeitgeist, and the tethering of oneself to cultural materials is a way to self-reflection, development of taste and maturity. This relationship between pop culture and formative identity is alive and evident in two of the most buzzed-about films to come out of Sundance this year: "Dope" and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl."

"Dope," director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest film, is heavily draped in musical influences, which permeate past the surface to bleed onto the characters. Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy are fully integrated into ‘90s hip-hop culture, immersing themselves in the dress, talk and music of the pre-millennium decade. Living in Inglewood, California, a city rife with gang violence and crime, this is both a way of escaping the societal limitations and expectations imposed upon them as well as a certain brand of social alienation from their peer group. It speaks to the cultural relevance of the film that it managed to attract contemporary mainstays of the rap and hip-hop scenes: The songs by the trio’s ska/punk band in the film were written by Pharrell Williams and Famuyiwa recruited rappers A$AP Rocky, Tyga, Casey Veggies, and Vince Staples as acting talents. The film’s protagonists champion the aesthetic as well as the ear of a pop-culture period that came before their time, and in doing so create an identity for themselves free of ambiguity; an identity that they can slip into like a protective shell, one with comfortable and self-established boundaries. It cushions the harsh blow of reality; insulates them from the very real problems facing them and their futures. The film itself fuses the characters’ love of ‘90s hip-hop with modern technology and music, nestling layers of pop culture within each other to keep its protagonists safe from the sharpness of youth.

In "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," 15-year-old aspiring graphic artist Minnie (Bel Powley) sleeps with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skårsgard), twenty years her senior. This sounds more controversial than it actually is within the context of the film, to the credit of the established time period and completely disparate political climate. Set in 1970s San Francisco, steeped in yellow tones and with cocaine and bellbottoms galore, "Diary" is singular because it stands as a story about one young girl making mistakes that young girls do. Minnie records retellings of her sexual escapades with Monroe as well as her most private fears and insecurities onto a set of cassette tapes, serving as a “diary” of sorts. It’s the ‘70s equivalent of today’s blogging, or perhaps yesterday’s pen-to-paper journaling; it’s purely a product yielded and made relevant by the generation; it’s the perfect medium of memory for the film, as we get Minnie’s funny and sensitive narration. Beyond that, the clunky tape recorder (replete with corded microphone) serves as a tool of introspection for Minnie, of self-reflection turned inside out and pondered aloud. Each step she takes and every mistake she makes is taken note of in the personal format of audio, and as she journeys along the path of sex, drugs, and emotional abandonment laid out before her, we’re taken along for the ride, equipped with nothing but a tape recorder.

Pop culture helps make sense of the world when everything seems so deafening, hopeless, and scary; when we are frustrated, hopeful, bitter, lustful, and wrathful: all the feelings that are magnified tenfold in the crosshairs of youth. When we were young we could get away with anything because we could feel anything; pop culture opened us up and helped us put words to implacable feelings, or leave our troubles if we couldn’t understand them. We were sweet and ignorant, and to lose yourself in a song or a movie or a tape recording—even momentarily—is nothing if not the sweetest, most ignorant escape.

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