The 2019 JTBC drama series At Eighteen (열여덟의 순간 /Moment at 18) is one of the sincerest depictions of teenage life in Korea I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
Tackling both familiar and difficult issues, At Eighteen manages to maintain a large ensemble cast of characters that all work hand in hand to present what is a deep and honest picture of youth today.
Even more of an accomplishment is that the series is able to also touch on the struggles of adults as well without taking anything away from what teenagers may be going through. And vice versa.
Our main characters are the reserved new transfer student Choi Joon Woo (Ong Seung Woo), the friendly Yoo Soo Bin (Kim Hyang Gi) and the competitive top student and class president Ma Hwi Young (Shin Seung Ho). Through them and their homeroom teacher Oh Han Kyeol (Kang Ki Young), we are welcomed into this classroom to meet students and families from different walks of life with different personalities and different personal situations.
At Eighteen touches on issues such as the social and class divide, familial pressure to do well in school, bullying, first love, insecurities, loneliness, sexual orientation, friendship, corruption in the education system, abuse and mental health.
For a 16-episode drama, that might seem like a lot. But At Eighteen is able to find a delicate balance that allows for each issue to get an ample and well-deserved amount of time to be discussed.
Instead of being a condescending and overly-pretentious lecture about the ills of society, At Eighteen is very much a character driven series that allows the characters to tell their own stories. And through their stories, the wider discussion can be had.
I come into At Eighteen immediately after completing the Netflix series Extracurricular. That series also tackled the struggles and hardships of teenage life, albeit in a much darker and comparably over-the-top way. They are both very different shows and deal with many different issues even if the core of both is to tell the story of today’s youth. And they both do what they set out to do well.
But what was so shocking to me was how much more frustrating and upsetting At Eighteen was than anything I saw on Extracurricular. And I soon realized that is because the struggles and hardships presented in At Eighteen are far more common than the criminal enterprise at the center of Extracurricular.
What made many of the events and characters in At Eighteen so upsetting was that they were all sadly realistic. Whether it’s the school bullying or the intense pressure to get perfect grades, these are situations that are far too common and likely in today’s world. Knowing that many of the moments presented in this series can happen in real life is difficult to embrace.
At Eighteen then accomplishes almost the impossible by giving these characters hope and for some, a path toward redemption. Regardless of what they go through in this year of their lives, we see a way forward for most of the characters we grow to care about over the course of 16 episodes.
For its cast, At Eighteen features a strong ensemble. Ong Seung Woo in his first on-screen acting experience grabs the lead role and makes Joon Woo someone you can immediately relate to. Joon Woo is a great character as he is the upstanding hero, but isn’t without his own faults as well.
Kim Hyang Gi shows off her experience as Soo Bin who has to express a wide range of emotions, from the light and fun to the heavy and emotional. She is more than capable as a romantic lead, but she does best in scenes where she deals with her family life and the overwhelming pressure from her mother regarding her studies.
Shin Seung Ho, who does a good job in a supporting role in Netflix’s Love Alarm, shows off his dramatic skills here. We first meet Hwi Young as the nice and amiable class president who does well in school and is well-liked. But we soon meet the real Hwi Young who can be ruthless, contemptable and over-competitive. He quickly does the opposite of endearing himself with one questionable move after another. But as the layers of his character and situation are slowly revealed, Shin Seung Ho does the difficult job of getting you to understand Hwi Young and perhaps even empathize with him. It is no small feat, but Shin Seung Ho does it.
Kang Ki Young is wonderful as the caring and honest teacher Oh Han Kyeol. With Han Kyeol being a mentor and father figure to the students, Kang Ki Young brings an air of positivity and hope to the series when everything else seems very negative and hopeless. For many of the characters, he is the welcome catalyst to help them move forward.
The supporting cast is strong. But worthy of special mention are Moon Bin and Kim Do Wan.
ASTRO’s Moon Bin leaves a strong first impression in his first acting role. As Oh Je, Moon Bin navigates the series’ most unexpected, but very welcome story while also being the dependable sidekick and friend to our lead hero. It is a nuanced performance that really makes his relatively smaller amount of screentime much more meaningful as his story develops.
Kim Do Wan, meanwhile, is an absolute standout as Jo Sang Hoon. Sang Hoon’s cocky, smirking attitude would be difficult to digest in other circumstances. But as Hwi Young’s only rival for the school’s top spot, he becomes the most unlikely character to root for in the series. While he spends much of his time provoking and mocking Hwi Young so as to rattle him away from his studies, we also get to learn more about his own situation as well. Kim Do Wan, perhaps the most out of anyone in the series, threads a needle through the smallest of holes in an effortless way. Never has a character so full of himself be so sympathetic and relatable. And that’s thanks in large part to Kim Do Wan’s performance.
The literal translation of At Eighteen‘s Korean title can be Moment at Eighteen or Moments of 18.
Indeed, the series is very much a slice of life story. It is a nostalgic, very emotional look at the eventful year of these teens and their loved ones. A coming of age story that sees loves and friendships grow alongside each character’s personal growth.
While a simple premise on paper, At Eighteen delivers some honest and powerful discussions. A truly affecting series that is relatable.
At Eighteen uses the 18th year in these characters’ lives to illustrate just how much these moments can shape the rest of our lives. Whether it’s the happy and precious moments or the difficult and painful moments; through those experiences and through the people we meet, we can help each other set the course for our futures.