It’s a song that played at your middle school dance, with the memory of you and your friends dancing. It’s the smell of sunscreen that transports you back to a day at the beach with family. It’s that little-known animated film that you wore out the VHS of as a kid and can picture in its entirety the moment it’s mentioned. For the most part, nostalgia is felt naturally when someone re-experiences something that they associate with a memory of days past. Every once in a while though, as an adult, you may watch a film for the first time that feels somehow nostalgic. Something about it perfectly encapsulates a past experience or a past feeling – a sort of “manufactured nostalgia.”
The feeling of manufactured nostalgia is one most often associated with coming of age films, a subgenre built on recreating those unique feelings associated with growing up and coming to terms with your place in the world. Films like Stand By Me and Eighth Grade attempt to strike a nerve through relatability and raw, emotional connections to their main characters, rather than exciting action sequences or heart-pounding mysteries. Stand By Me primarily does this through dialogue, with its young characters holding conversations about everything from Pez and Disney characters to the more sobering realities of death, while Eighth Grade often takes a more visual approach – tending to show its protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as nervous and often literally standing apart from her peers. There’s no immediate air of mystery about the characters of these films, nor do they do anything beyond the abilities of a normal human being. You could realistically imagine yourself and friends as the group of boys going on an adventure with friends along the railroad tracks of a small town in Stand by Me. Kayla of Eighth Grade may even remind you of yourself when she has a panic attack at the popular girl’s pool party. For all intents and purposes the characters could be you or me, or anyone you meet on the street.
Although the characters of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Clyde Petersen’s Torrey Pines never feel like me, their created worlds exemplify another kind of relatability that can only be explained through this phenomena of manufactured nostalgia. I’ve never lived in a hotel, nor have I been on a cross-country road trip while kidnapped by a schizophrenic mother, but the two films’ combined visuals, writing and focus on child protagonists help to create a cinematic environment that feels familiar to me, even if the narrative is not. These films don’t express my life story in a way that is relatable on a surface level, but their representations of childhood are strikingly authentic and just as strikingly nostalgic.
On a purely superficial level, The Florida Project inspires nostalgia in me with its Florida setting. I went to Disney World a handful of times as a kid and, every time I went, we’d drive by a lot of the Kissimmee locations prominently featured in the film; the orange store and the cotton candy colored hotels were as familiar sights to me as the Disney park itself. The difference is, save for Disney itself, these were all things I only passed by as a child. What resonates with me more significantly is the film’s pure, innocent portrayal of childhood. The film is full of adult situations – the film’s young protagonist Moonee (Brookylnn Prince), for example, has a mother who has sex with paying clients in their shared hotel room – but the parents and guardians present try their best to shield the child characters from the injustices of the world around them. Moonee is locked in the bathroom with music blasting, having fun playing with toys while her mother works. The hotel manager, Bobby, notices a pedophile approaching the children and scares him away before anything can happen. The kids are free to play pranks, ogle at neighbors tanning nude, and play as animals in the grass. They’re not free of care but, for the most part, they’re allowed to be ignorant to the dark reality of their situations and are allowed to be kids – and that’s a charming, magic-like thing to see portrayed on-screen.
For the opposite reasons, Torrey Pines resonates with me just as much as The Florida Project. While The Florida Project highlights the freedom and innocence of being a child, Torrey Pines inspires a more raw kind of nostalgia. The animated film tells a true story from director Clyde Peterson’s childhood wherein his mother took him on a road trip across America, fueled by delusions about aliens and political conspiracy. Throughout the somewhat fantastical story, the unnamed protagonist’s anxieties about life, school, gender and attraction are all on display as he attempts to navigate puberty in the context of his strange life. Some of this self-exploration is portrayed through the character’s love of television – a facet of the story that stood out to me personally as someone who has always loved the medium and felt a connection to the fictional worlds and characters they created.
The literal construction of Torrey Pines only adds to the visceral feeling of relatability garnered from its narrative, with every scene and character made up of what appears to be construction paper pieces, occasionally colored in or decorated with watercolor markers. Its unique style gives it the feeling of literally being made by a child, and makes even its stranger and more unrelatable scenes inspire nostalgia for times past.
These two films could not be more different in narrative or scope, but they both ring true to me in a sort of primal way, with their specific combinations of elements presented on-screen reminding me of what it was like to be a child and preteen. Both films delve into dark subjects, with The Florida Project moving me to tears on more than one occasion, but I can’t help but feel comforted by these films as well. What I feel for them is what I imagine people may have felt for Stand By Me when it was released in 1986, or what I’m sure many millennials on the cusp of adulthood felt seeing Eighth Grade in 2018. All of these films have their own distinctive understandings of what it’s like to grow up, and for those who resonate with those on-screen portrayals it can inspire in them the unique and comforting feeling of “manufactured nostalgia.”
Header Image Courtesy of IMDb & A24