Kids Are At The Center Of Stranger Things, Little Men

Why movies and TV are suddenly focusing on that awkward preteen moment

It has only been two weeks since the new series Stranger Things premiered on Netflix, but already the show has captured the attention of audiences looking for a late-summer TV binge. As audiences rush to unpack the show’s deep well of ’80s pop-culture references, they have also found time to fall in love with its young stars. The four characters who anchor the series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, and Dustin — are all played by unknown actors and, maybe for the first time in the streaming age, all of the show’s breakout stars were born after the year 2000. The performers of these already beloved characters are busy being middle-school students when they’re not headlining the hit show, and no small part of the craze around the series is from the novelty of these young performers, who look and act with all the awkward specificity of their age group.

The actors on Stranger Things are at the age when limbs start stretching, hair starts sprouting, and voices start dropping, but it’s also the age before any of those changes start happening with enough regularity to constitute an entirely mature appearance. Boys appear with wispy mustaches and all their baby fat; girls grow long arms out of place with their short torsos. And the feelings and behaviors of kids in this period mirror their bodies: pushing too fast and too hard in some directions while lagging behind in others. So the boys in Stranger Things are mature enough to defy authority in their loyal and devoted search for a missing friend, but they nervously recoil from the strange girl they discover when Eleven makes an innocent move to change her clothes.

The mystery of Eleven’s origins and powers makes her an alien presence amid the suburban landscape — but so long as she keeps her clothes on, she’s absorbed into the group of boys as one of their own. Part of the magic age that the Stranger Things crew occupies comes from the characters being too young and too modest to imitate the expectations that come along with being a man. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are aware that it’s expected for boys to like girls, but they aren’t sure how to act on those feelings or if the inclinations they feel are feelings at all. They treat Eleven as a friend rather than a girl for themselves to play the part of boys against, the way they might if they were even just two or three years older, and this openness makes the characters all that much more endearing.

It’s possible that the choice to center Stranger Things around preteens is the biggest throwback of all to the show’s ’80s setting. The kids on Stranger Things wouldn’t be out of place in the decade that regularly spawned hits like Lucas or Stand By Me or The Goonies, all of which centered around the gangly years of braces, first crushes, and all-boys or all-girls clubs. But in the last few decades, programming has focused more on late-teen characters like Nancy than on her early-teen little brother — a trend that makes this summer’s releases stand out all the more, as it seems that early teens, and especially early teen boys, are having a renewed moment in the spotlight.

Premiering this week, the movie Little Men sets out to explore the same age group as Stranger Things, but this time the setting is more or less like real life, not science fiction. Child actors Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri play Jake and Tony, two eighth-grade boys who strike up a friendship as their parents struggle to settle a dispute over an apartment in Brooklyn. The world of the adults in Little Men is an all too familiar view of the petty bureaucratic hardships of surviving in an expensive city among people who don’t understand you, but under the careful eye of New York filmmaker Ira Sachs, Jake and Tony provide a window for audiences into the utopic world of not-quite adolescents. Jake and Tony are still developing their own sense of who they are in the world and who they want to be, and they haven’t yet begun to self-select their surroundings or their company. Their friends are the same age, but that’s about the only thing that doesn’t change from person to person, as Jake and Tony display a disregard for the boundaries of race, gender, and class that serve to stratify the world their parents occupy. With the strength of magical inexperience powering them, the boys are the ones still able to imagine the perfect solution for the seemingly unsolvable problems of the adults in their lives — and it’s the adult bureaucracies like school tracking, admissions processes, and rising rents that are eventually responsible for breaking up the freedom of their shared world.

The boys of this May’s John Carney musical Sing Street are older than their counterparts in Stranger Things or Little Men, but you might call them late developers. The movie’s hero, Conor, starts out a ruddy-cheeked novice with dreams of puppy love and making it to MTV. He stumbles through imperfect transformations, wearing the oversize clothes of established artists on his way to finding an identity that will fit him. The tension between the man Conor wants to be and the boy he still is give the movie’s final moments a double significance as Conor, now going by the name Cosmo, faces the waves with a look of defiance as he literally sets sail to fulfill his dreams in London. We’ve watched this boy fake his way to real transformation, and while he leaves the film with everything he ever wanted, for the audience, he has also crossed an unspoken threshold. What made Conor (and the movie that contained him) so appealing was that he hadn’t outgrown his boyishness, but by the time Conor is Cosmo, he is also decidedly a teen, not a child. It’s at once a happy and unsettling ending — as much as the movie follows the birth of Cosmo as an adolescent and an artist, it also follows the necessary death of Conor as a boy.

Filmmakers’ recent fascination with this fleeting moment of human development has also translated beyond the world of independent artists and into the realm of studio filmmaking. Michael Barbieri — who made such an impression as Tony in Little Men shouting at his acting coach and dancing to meet a girl who’s just a little older, just a little taller, and just a little more experienced — has been tapped for a role in the upcoming Spider-Man movie alongside the new Peter Parker, who will be played by Tom Holland. At 20, Tom Holland is five years older than Barbieri, who will play his friend in the new movie. He is also five years younger than Tobey Maguire was when he stepped into the spider suit. It remains practical for studios to cast actors who are over 18 since adherence to child labor laws can limit the flexibility of scheduling a film shoot, but Holland is able to pass for a real high school student, not just a Movie High School Student, which is a marked difference between Holland and the men who have played Peter Parker before.

As much as casting young actors opens up new artistic possibilities by making it possible to observe different bodies and behaviors, the difference of a couple years between performers can be the difference between accessing entirely different audiences, largely because of the rapid development of social media platforms over the last few decades. At the ripe old age of 22, I’m from the generation that started out on social media as Facebook (or even Myspace) natives. Holland is from the Instagram generation, and Barbieri’s generation is still growing up on Snapchat.

If movie studios popularized the teen movie in the 1950s and ’60s as a means to cash in on the age group that had spending money from their after-school jobs but no real financial responsibilities to drain them, what studios are doing now is catering to the sub-teen generation that found its sense of self online before advertisers were able to sort individuals into identities designed for them. There is no buzzword to describe the kids of Stranger Things, Little Men, or Sing Street. They aren’t quite millennials, they aren’t quite teens, they aren’t quite children. They exist at a gap of language, in a glitch in the marketing matrix.