Through Death Comes Life: A Re-Visioning of the Coming of Age Story in THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE
18 September 2011
John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke (1987) is typically praised as a poignant coming of age film that, amazingly, never falls victim to the clichés plaguing countless (and forgettable) coming of age films. One of the reasons the film does not fall victim is Duigan’s attention to detail and ability to revise, ever so slightly, the focus of his coming of age story. Traditionally, these stories mainly focus on the transformation of the central character, who begins ignorant to the world and concludes with a more experienced, realistic view, most often due to an unexpected and dramatic plot twist that forces the character from innocence to experience. The Year My Voice Broke does not focus solely on the transformation, although it is present in the film; instead, the film pays closest attention, in subtle and overt ways, to the death of childhood necessary, but often understated and ignored, in coming of age stories.
The Year My Voice Broke follows Danny (Noah Taylor), a boy just entering adolescence who falls madly in love with his best friend, Freya (Loene Carmen), a neighbor in their small Australian town who is a few years older. Although Danny reveals his feelings to Freya repeatedly, she falls for Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), a boy closer to her age who has a reputation for trouble. As Freya and Trevor’s turbulent relationship develops, Danny must watch, powerless and in disgust, as he loses the girl he wanted desperately but could never have. Both literally and figuratively, death plagues The Year My Voice Broke, and each representation of death symbolizes the most significant deaths in the entire film, that of Danny’s, Trevor’s, and Freya’s childhood.
The death of Danny’s childhood is handled subtly in the film. An example is the scene in which Danny and Freya walk home down a main road through their dark, abandoned town. Danny questions Freya as to whether or not she thinks good and bad places exist in the world, leading the two into a conversation about the stillness and isolation of their town and the ghosts of the dead still lingering there. In this conversation, it is clear Freya has thought about this before, but these ideas seem newer to Danny, or perhaps he is new to speaking of them. The calmness and honesty of the brief conversation is beautiful, full of depth and realization, a typical coming of age moment. However, Duigan adds a detail to the scene that asks the audience to see not only the transformation happening in Danny through this conversation, but also the tragic loss of innocence involved. Danny’s attention during this conversation is, at times, focused on a streetlight with countless moths and bugs fluttering around it. Twice, Duigan cuts to long shots from a low-angle of the streetlight with the innocent creatures anxiously attempting to get at the light. The image suggests death, as moths and bugs are drawn to light or flame in a sacrificial paradox. The shots are not simply the literal deaths of these creatures, but more the figurative death of innocence happening to Danny as a result of this conversation.
Moreover, the film includes several shots of the sunrise and sunset. The sunrise represents the awakening in Danny, the transition into his adult self. Yet, Duigan never includes a sunrise without a sunset because the only way for Danny to become an adult is for his child self to end. Sunset is the end, or, more dramatically, the death of the day. In these subtle ways, Duigan never allows the audience to lose sight if the great loss involved in coming of age.
More overtly, The Year My Voice Broke captures the end of Trevor’s and Freya’s childhood respectively through literal deaths. First is Trevor, who actually dies at the end of the film. When he learns Freya is pregnant with his child, Trevor, who is once again in trouble with the law, decides to skip town. After telling Freya to stay with Danny and let Danny help her with the child, Trevor steals a car and flees, with police pursuing close behind. Sadly, Trevor crashes the car and dies as a result of injuries. Trevor’s death is key Duigan’s treatment of the coming of age story in The Year My Voice Broke. To come of age one’s childhood must come to an end. It was time for Trevor to come of age; he had responsibilities to uphold and consequences to accept for his actions, but Trevor couldn’t transition, or come of age; therefore, when his childhood died so did he.
Trevor’s death leads Freya to the death of her own childhood. Upon hearing the news, she runs away from home and suffers a miscarriage before Danny can find her and take her to hospital. The death of the fetus is, symbolically the death of Freya’s childhood. After her miscarriage, a new, experience Freya emerges.
What most coming of age stories don’t do is acknowledge the pain involved in growing up. Although there are exceptions, coming of age representations on film generally emphasize an upbeat and inspiring tone. The Year My Voice Broke is refreshing because it is unafraid of confronting the sadness, pain, and trauma of leaving childhood behind. Duigan’s film may flippantly be called coming of age, but it is distinguish among its rivals because it is truly more than that.