How Now and Then Transformed Me into a Loyal Friend and a Better Listener

Laura Leigh Abby, whose new podcast Seventeen debuts today, on how the 1995 coming-of-age movie shaped her into who she is today.

There’s a certain kind of kid who harbors some innate nostalgia for their childhood, even while they’re smack in the middle of it. I was one of those kids: wrapped up in my adolescent drama while also sporting a casual layer of self-awareness.

Grown-up matters had nothing on my pubescent female concerns. There were cute boys and mean girls. Legs that suddenly needed shaving. Boobs that grew too fast, or not fast enough. Still, my friends and I could oscillate easily between playing make-believe and whispering about parental drama, and back again. We had so many pieces, but we weren’t quite ready to configure the puzzle.

My best friends and I were the stereotype: tying up the landline for hours at a time, painting our nails and sharing our secrets. But we didn’t know how to convey our real feelings about the big scary issues of our lives, like divorce traumas, grief, and impending puberty.

Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffman, Ashleigh Aston Moore and Christina Ricci in Now and Then.

From the perspective of middle age, childhood seems so simple. Bike rides, sleepovers and the occasional book report? Sign me up. But there was also that inconvenient little business of growing physically, mentally and emotionally at incredible speed. There was a desire to stay tucked away safely in the past, even as we obsessed over the future. Adulthood was a beautiful, mysterious thing. No one we knew made it look very easy, but they must have been doing it wrong. We would surely get it right.

I can’t recall the first time I ever saw Now and Then, but I do know that I was 10 years old when it came out in theaters in the fall of 1995.The film followed four best friends over the course of a tumultuous summer in their 12-year-old lives, as they saved up money to buy a treehouse and embarked on assorted adventures. Roberta was a tomboy still making sense of the death of her mom. Sam’s parents were getting divorced and she was realizing that grown-ups didn’t have all the answers. Chrissy had an over-protective mom and felt like she didn’t know anything about adult matters like sex, and Teeny was trying to grow up too fast. She stuffed her bra and wanted to be a movie star.

Soon after its release on home video, it became a sleepover staple. Every weekend, I made a beeline to the VHS copy on the shelf of my local video store — my best friend by my side — until one of us finally obtained a copy of our own. The best viewing was in summer, when our own world held limitless possibilities. When maybe we could have our own adventure.

Laura Leigh Abby, around the time she first saw Now and Then.

The film was layered in all of my favorite things: nostalgia, classic rock, Motown, mature kid problems and immature kid problems. There was a Vietnam vet with PTSD and we knew him only as the weirdo in the movie. A good scene for a bathroom break or refilling the popcorn. We couldn’t yet appreciate that kind of trauma. There was the creepy fortune teller at the diner, played perfectly by Janeane Garofalo, and there were girls like us who cursed and made promises to each other and rode their bikes all day. And it never bothered me that the movie opened with these women all grown up. Because they were still the same. Still best friends. And Teeny really was a movie star.

But let’s back up. It was the summer after fifth grade. Our parents didn’t know where we were, only that we were together. I wonder if I was part of the last generation of kids who disappeared on our bikes every summer day until dinner time. We rode through the forest and occasionally crossed the busy roads to get to each other’s houses. Sometimes our bikes were tossed along the sidewalk by the 7-Eleven or leaned up against a tree in the woods by the bay. We felt the freedom of childhood just as we were on the cusp of shifting relationships. Soon the boys would go their own way, no longer content with childish friendships. The burden of our changing bodies and surging hormones were still ahead, and we were cocooned in our innocent adventures.

The soundtrack is still a favorite. Children of the Beatles generation, we were ready for the saccharine chastity of the Monkees and the Jackson 5. We shimmied to “Sugar, Sugar” and pantomimed nearly every lyric of “Knock Three Times” and “Hitchin’ a Ride.”

Gaby Hoffman, Christina Ricci, Thora Birch and Ashleigh Aston Moore in Now and Then.

The songs transported us to a more exciting time, a world where there was possibility, even in small towns like ours. We knew the ending; everyone would be OK. Mostly. But we were still in the middle of it, and that’s what I’ve always loved most about Now and Then.

At this point, I’d only had a few tough conversations in my young life, and I certainly didn’t know how to communicate with other kids my age. I felt so seen, as I watched these young girls choose what to share and what to keep to themselves. There’s an art to learning what you can say to other people, even your best friends. I hadn’t really experienced suffering, and aside from Roberta, the other girls in the film had been mostly immune to it too. There’s a powerful scene where the girls sneak into Sam’s grandma’s attic. There they discover a newspaper article about the car accident that killed Roberta’s mom, and she discovers she’d been lied to; her mother didn’t die instantly, but had in fact been trapped in her vehicle. Roberta reacts first with rage and then with tears, and her friends don’t know how to respond.

I remember feeling the weight of that scene as a child myself. What was there to say to her pain? It was a lesson about simply existing in those tough moments. It was OK to let people feel, to let them have an outburst. There isn’t always a solution. Now and Then taught me that sometimes you just have to be there with someone in their moment of grief, and it’s a lesson I’ve really valued through the years.

Laura Leigh Abby today, with her wife Sam and their sons, Quinn and Simon.

The most magical movies are the ones that are fun, but also enriching. Now and Then was that for me as a young girl. It was the epitome of a coming-of-age tale, and I could see myself and my interests reflected in the characters as they chased mystery and learned how to navigate an ever-changing world.

The movie transformed me into the most loyal friend, and I credit my lasting female friendships to the adventures these girls embarked on in the summer of 1970 in the Gaslight Addition neighborhood of Shelby, Indiana.

Laura Leigh Abby is a writer who focuses on memoir and personal essay. Her new teen diary podcast Seventeen, n which Laura reads her 17-year-old diary and reflects on it, is out now. She lives in the Hudson Valley in an old farmhouse with her wife Sam and their two young boys. Laura and Sam appeared on the second season of Bravo TV’s Newlyweds: The First Year and are active in the LGBTQ+ community. Laura’s essays have been featured in publications like Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Vice and Condé Nast’s them., among others. Her 2016 Amazon Kindle Single The Rush was a memoir about falling in love with her sorority sister in college. Her book 2Brides2Be: A Same Sex Guide for the Modern Bride was published in 2017 and features a mix of memoir and practical advice for couples planning two-bride weddings. Laura is originally from Long Island, New York, but spent 6 years of her youth in Ontario, Canada where she became a dual citizen. She majored in Creative Writing at Emerson College and went on to The New School for her MFA.