Never Let Me Go stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield as three childhood friends who grow up in a boarding school in the 70s and 80s. They don't know their parents, they don't know what their future holds, and in reality having spent the majority of their lives behind the fences of their school, they don't know much about life other than what they are told about it. Mulligan and Knightly's characters are best friends despite being polar opposites. Knightly is superficial, loves to gossip, and can be quite cruel while Mulligan is sweet, quiet, and caring. Because of these traits, her character often takes pity on Garfield's younger self when all the children are mean to him. The pair strike up a friendship which quickly turns into childhood puppy love. In steps Knightly, who is clearly jealous over the fact that Mulligan has been able to find love from someone (something that has alluded these parentless children), and a love triangle is born.
However, it's not long into the movie that a well meaning teacher spills the beans to the students, they are not "real" people. Well, they are real, but they were bred for the specific purpose of donating their organs and other body parts to people on the outside who are dying. Most of them will not live past 30. So it is here that things get truly complicated as the trio grow up, fall in and out of love with each other, and try to make the most of their lives. When we are young, everything seems like the biggest deal. The drama of the moment really will ruin our lives if we let it, and it is not until we are older that we realize, "why did I care so much, that thing means nothing to me in the long run." Unfortunately for these three, this is all their life is and they don't have time to realize any of that. It is not until the very end and faced with death that anyone grows up. A delayed adult, and then a very rushed one at that.
Yes I did cry at the end, and it was for all the same reasons that anyone cries. But as I thought about the film in the following days I couldn't help but get stuck on the futility of their growing up process. What did their lives mean? They were born for a specific function. Yes they saved several people's lives. Their lives did have purpose, and not everyone can claim that, even in our society. But I was stuck on the coming of age aspect. Recently I read An Unchanged Mind by John McKinnon for a class which talked about delayed maturity and how this is what is at the root of "that one" in the family (you know, the black sheep, the wild teen, every family has one, etc. etc.). The three main characters in this movie are both simultaneously stuck in childhood and then rushed through adulthood. In their late teens and early 20s they are still struggling with basic concepts that Erik Erikson theorized we would learn in childhood (feeling control over one's environment, having a sense of identity, feeling loved), but once they start to donate and are forced to watch others near by pass away and they are faced with their own mortality that the characters grow up. From adolescence to old age in a couple of years. But if they skip stages are they truly grown up? According to McKinnon, no. And considering the profound grief and obvious frustration Mulligan's character feels at the end, her desire to go back to childhood and the innocence it held, it may be clear that this is the case.
When I was 9 my parents sold their apartment and bought a house about 10 miles away. Separated by a river and the inability to drive I lost touch with my friends. On the cusp of adolescence that was pretty devastating and I started to think about how I cared so much about whether or not the boy I liked would find out (if he did my life would surely end), whether I was ever caught with the girl who had cooties (if I was, I would catch them and no one would ever want to be my friend EVER), and so many other trivial things we care about in childhood. And then I realized none of it mattered. I didn't know those people anymore, it was a totally different life, none of the new kids in my life cared. Something most people don't realize until post-high school or post-college I realized at 9. Yet, I was a human being and I got caught up in life's dramas and began to care about new trivial things. Once in awhile I would remind myself of this earlier lesson, but it's hard when your hormones are rushing around to keep clear on things.
Now my life is not without drama, and even recently I had a conversation with my friend Sam and said to her, "in the grand scheme of life, we will look back at this and laugh and wonder why we cared so much. I think we should just drop it now rather than let it consume the next several months of our lives." Perhaps still a little bit ahead of Erikson's curve, but Never Let Me Go, reminded me that there's a lot more important things to care about. Life is short for all of us and we often waste so much time on stupid things that we forget to focus on what's really important. What in our lives will stand the test of time? Family, the careers we build for ourselves, true friendships, true mature love, and anything else in life that is worth nurturing. Trivial dramas are clearly no where near that list. So why wait until we are near death to realize it?