Hey, Dustin Hoffman: This Critic Says This Summer's Movies (and Amy Schumer) Prove You're Wrong

Diary of a Teenage Girl
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Todd McCarthy refutes the actor's jaded claim ("It's the worst it's ever been"), pointing to an abundance of terrific coming-of-age films ('The Tribe,' 'Inside Out,' 'Diary of a Teenage Girl,' 'Brooklyn').

This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The impulse to bemoan the current state of movies compared to the putative glory days of the past has always been with us; some­times the griping is justified, sometimes not. Still, Dustin Hoffman's recent complaint to U.K. newspaper The Independent that, "It's the worst that film has ever been … in the 50 years that I've been doing it" got quite a bit of play, no doubt because it came from a highly esteemed veteran who has witnessed firsthand many changes in the industry.

At first, I took Hoffman's remarks as possibly a sort of a veiled personal complaint that he's no longer offered the sort of estimable parts and projects that were the norm for him. Then again, the man has a point. Who among us has not mourned the lack of serious adult dramas, the Marvelization of expectations, the handoff of Oscar-hopeful films from the major studios to the specialized distributors, the endless sequels and reboots? Despite that, I'm not sure his statement holds up to scrutiny. For one, I remain undeterred in my conviction that the 1980s was, by far, the worst dec­ade for American film since sound came in — notwithstanding the fact that Hoffman won his two Oscars during that period (Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man) and no doubt would disagree. Moreover, there have been specific areas of improvement.

Let's compare our current crop of films to those released in 1967, the year Hoffman broke through to stardom in The Graduate. As it happens, 1967 was a pivotal and exciting time. The studios mostly were turning out dreck (some of it made by aging old pros like Preminger, Mankiewicz, Kramer and others), but the new guard, the subversives, the game-changers (Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to name two) were slipping in through the cracks, and there were electrifying stylistic breakthroughs like Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank and For A Few Dollars More. The old system was crumbling, and there were plenty of aspiring and able talents ready to assert themselves. Add to this what came out of Europe that year (films like Playtime and The Firemen's Ball) as well as on the documentary front (from Don't Look Back to Titicut Follies to Portrait of Jason), and you might as well get down on your hands and knees.

Still, a very strange fact surfaces when you peruse the list of 1967 films closely enough: Hollywood was barely making movies about, or featuring, young people. Sure, drive-ins and cheapo exploitation pictures were symptoms and byproducts of the baby boom and youth culture. But AIP, Roger Corman and the filmmakers growing rich off adolescents' dollars didn't often depict adolescents onscreen. Rather, 1967 hits like The Trip, Devil's Angels and It's a Bikini World featured leading actors who were 26 to 30 years old. Hoffman himself was 30 when The Graduate came out.

In the late 1960s and for a few years thereafter, young folks didn't much think about seeing themselves and their problems depicted onscreen. They went to see compelling movies made with a different attitude and fresh style: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby, Petulia, Take the Money and Run, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Downhill Racer, The Wild Bunch, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Honeymoon Killers, Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Performance, Dirty Harry, Carnal Knowledge, Taking Off, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Two-Lane Blacktop.

Eventually, the "youth market" was discovered and teens were targeted, stereotyped, sentimentalized and in every way pandered to. But that long and often depressing process has led us to a point where the big-screen representation of young people is one of the real bright spots of movies today, forming an entire genre of cinema to which Hoffman's theory decidedly does not apply.

I haven't been young for a few years now, but even for me many of the best — or at least most distinctive — films of the year thus far concern individuals who haven't yet turned 21. Several are indies, a few are foreign, and collectively they're incredibly diverse in the way they look at their characters and the world around them.

Pixar's wildly inventive Inside Out takes place largely inside the head of a girl on the brink of adolescence. Ukrainian drama The Tribe, the most mesmerizing and unexpected film I've seen this year, focuses on a lawless school for deaf-and-dumb students and is acted entirely in sign language by the teenage cast. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, this year's big Sundance winner, transcends its contrivances to deal freshly with adolescent creativity. Another Sundance title, Dope, is an original teen-sex comedy/coming-of-age-in-the-hood hybrid. White God, from Hungary, bracingly examines a 13-year-old girl's hopes for salvation through her search for a missing dog.

Later this summer, moviegoers can check out The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a superbly observed look at a young woman's sexual awakening, and Paper Towns, a solid adaptation of John Green's young adult novel about nervy adolescent girls and the immature boys who love them. And on the documentary front, there's The Wolfpack, which centers on a brood of kids who never have been allowed out of their parents' cramped Manhattan apartment, their awareness of the outside world coming only through movies.

Perhaps best of all is Brooklyn, a resplendent adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel about an Irish teenager (played by Saoirse Ronan) sent to early 1950s New York. Premiered at Sundance and set to open in the fall, the film captures the tension between youthful security and the alluring uncertainty of adulthood, the dawning of first love and the discovery of the power of self-assertion.

Hoffman's argument may be legitimate insofar as it applies to what the major studios are making. But for a long time now, the specialized labels and independents have been raising the bar when it comes to stories of young people — an appreciable accomplishment.

Another reason to believe in movies right now? The really, truly funny Amy Schumer. She hasn't yet directed a feature, but she unquestionably is the co-auteur of Judd Apatow's hilarious, emotionally vibrant new film, Trainwreck. On the evidence of a few Comedy Central sketches she helmed (such as the 12 Angry Men parody, in which 12 male jurors vehemently debate the life-or-death question, “Is Amy Schumer is hot enough for movies?”), Schumer has an awareness of film form at least as advanced as Woody Allen's when he started out. If that's not cause for optimism, I don't know what is.