A Look at Coming-Of-Age Stories
Why They Are Important and the Films You Need to Watch
The most important story in fiction is the coming-of-age story.
Coming-of-age stories are broad enough to encompass a wide range of people, places and times. Usually, one finds a coming-of-age story about a pre-teen or teenager becoming an adult — which makes the most sense. Everyone can relate to that experience of growing up and being confronted with adult situations at a very young age. Because of this, coming-of-age stories hold a unique place in the realm of storytelling: broad enough to relate, yet specific enough to learn fresh a point-of-view.
There is no better time to celebrate these stories than spring. School ends, graduations are celebrated, and summer is on the horizon. People and nature emerge from their winter slumber. There is a weird mix of finality and newness that make May an exciting month.
To help ring in these celebrations, I have put together a quick list of the coming-of-age movies that I believe are the most compelling, entertaining and worthy of your time. Some open eyes to new faces and different ideas, while others give us smooth, relatable stories. These movies have enriching characters in ordinary settings; their stories are able to speak to teenager inside all of us.
(Time to work our way backwards.)
My favorite film of 2018 is a tour de force of a coming-of-age film.
The Hate U Give is 133 minutes long, and I cried for 120 of them. And that is not a joke. In those 2-plus hours, the films packs the most heart and emotion I have seen in recent years.
Based on Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name, the film follows Starr (played by Amandla Stenberg) as she grows up in the fictional suburb of Garden Heights. Starr, a bright young high school student, witnesses a close friend shot and killed by the police. Starr begins thinking about the event and tackling questions about life, racism and everything in between. This action in The Hate U Give starts conversations between Starr and friends/family about identity, violence, and racism.
The best performance of 2018 — male or female — belongs to Amandla Stenberg. Her character is put through emotional and physical hell, and Stenberg delivers a stunning performance. Her growth of the character is evident, but her poise to convey such deep, dark emotions — yet somehow never really lose all her positiveness — is astonishing (in the best possible way) to watch. To watch how Starr reacts and feels after witnessing one of the most horrifying events anyone could go through is eye-opening. Watching Starr come of age throughout The Hate U Give is as important as any story being told today.
Greta Gerwig’s tale of coming-of-age in Sacramento, California is the grade A example of this genre. Lady Bird is a tremendous look at mother-daughter relationships, dealing with crushes and that transition of moving far away from both your family and the surroundings you know. Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character Lady Bird, excels at showing us the witty, independent side of being a teenager.
The complexities of Lady Bird’s mother-daughter relationships are eye-opening. The writing and performances (by the aforementioned Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as Lady’s mother) are the two biggest stand-outs of the film. Writer-director Greta Gerwig excels at having constraint in her filmmaking style and letting her strength as a writer (and the strength of great performances) give the film its power.
This film is funny, emotional and completely real. The experiences in Lady Bird pull from tough, but loving, experiences teens and parents have together. In particular, the ending hit hard for me. Throughout the film, Lady is dying to move away from her. All her personal struggles stem through that one goal. When at the end she is able to finally leave home, she realizes how being alone does kinda suck — but that revelation is done to perfection by Ronan, Gerwig, and company.
Hailee Steinfeld has had multiple career-defining roles. She was nominated for an Academy Award at age 14 for her role as Mattie Ross in the remake of True Grit; she has been featured in franchises such as Pitch Perfect and Transformers; she has starred and carried one of the best coming-of-age films in recent memory.
The Edge of Seventeen is raw, rich and real. The characters speak like real people and the situations play out like it is your friend re-telling a story from their own personal experience. The film is heartbreaking but filled with moments of redemption and tough life lessons. Steinfeld is remarkable, giving her a character so much emotion and nuance. She is not black and white, but a wide range of color as she figures out her changing perspective from teen to young adult.
I wrote more about The Edge of Seventeen here.
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the best coming-of-age stories I’ve seen. Based on a book (which is not very good), the film is both an ode to film and a charming story about the development of friendship.
Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and RJ Cyler feel like they are friends from high school. They create a bond that is creative and honest. There is no glossy-Hollywood cover; they walk, talk and act like actual young adults. When one of the characters is dying of cancer, their emotions toward the situation are heartfelt and relatable. I enjoyed the quirks, but also the powerful conversations between the three friends.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who includes tidbits from film classics, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a tremendous look at the teenage life as well as the film itself.
Dope is a movie for everyone — starring just about everyone.
It is funny, emotional, tense and a downright blast to watch. Dope takes the genre and brings some modernization to the story. The film blends cultures and identities that modern audiences are familiar with in their lives. Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore) is a “nerd”. When he and his friends attend a party, the gang experiences an adventure throughout their community unlike ever before.
The obvious statement of “nerd culture” being cool is a huge overtone of this film. Traditional stories have cliche characters, where their characteristics are (usually) defined by the clothes they wear and the activities they participate in. In Dope, this idea does not hold up. Malcolm and his friends (“Jib” played by Tony Revolori and “Diggy” played by Kiersey Clemons) are in a band that breeds the same level of coolness — à la Scott Pilgrim. The lines between cliques are blurred and friendships/relationships are always in flux.
I would not say coming-of-age stories are stale, but they can be formulaic. Some enjoy that formula, others tend to stay away. Dope brings a freshness to the genre and the way coming-of-age stories are told.
My favorite film of 2014 is the ambitious and moving Boyhood. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the film is famous (or perhaps infamous?) for being filmed during an 11-year span: from 2002 to 2013. The film follows the lives of a family, centering around a boy and his experiences growing up.
For me, this is the ultimate coming-of-age story — probably because you literally follow this boy’s coming-of-age exploits. The film details family dynamics that hit close to my own personal experiences. When I first saw Boyhood, I did not want the film to end. I felt the film flew by, even though it clocked out around three hours. Each scene and point in time was another part of the onion peeling away. The characters were rich and complex; the story never forcing its characters into certain “plot” points. Everything — from the writing to the acting — felt natural. By the end of the film, I felt I knew this family as well as any of my closest friends.
The film is an amazing achievement. To have these actors buy into these roles and their changes every year is astounding. This film is not the first, nor last, to ask actors to come back repeatedly, but Boyhood moves seamlessly through time with perfection. The film is intimate and timeless.
No movie really captured the freeing feeling of summer than The Kings of Summer. The indie movie directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and stars Nick Robinson, Moises Arias, and Gabriel Basso, is an indie that came and passed without much fanfare — which was unfortunate. The Kings of Summer features unique situations but allow the viewer to relate to the plight the characters face in the story.
Joe (played by Robinson) is at odds with his dad — who is a single parent — and decides to run away to live in the woods, with his friend (played by Basso) and another kid who happens to tag along (played by Arias). From their hideout in the woods, the friends gain a grander sense of friendship, family, and love. The boys experience crushes, have tests of their loyalty to one another, and gain broader understandings of what it means to have a family.
The Kings of Summer has a lot of idyllic charm, both because of where a lot of it takes place (summer in a beautiful forest — yes, please) and the ages we find our characters in this story. They are at the perfect age where imagination and reality crash, meeting somewhere in the middle — which makes for a great coming-of-age flick.
Whereas L’Avventura is polarizing because some are bored by the film as a whole, Blue is the Warmest Color features polarizing material. The film, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. The film, another coming-of-age story, showcases the relationship between Emma (Seydoux) and Adèle (Exarchopoulos). Blue is the Warmest Color features graphic sex scenes, and the two stars later complained of the horrible on-set conditions. This is not a film for everyone.
However, sex scenes aside, Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the best acted and developed coming-of-age stories on film. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are sensational as conflicted lovers, women and humans in today’s ever-changing world. The film touches on themes of sexuality and class structure, as well as the bond between two friends. Kechiche does not shy away from any topic, and the raw, realistic story is met with lush direction.
I touched on the film more in a post of its own.
I hated this book. Recommended to me in high school, I read it with huge disappointment. When the film was released, I made sure to it avoid at all costs. But, curiosity got the best of me.
Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, the author of the book, the film stars Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Mae Whitman. The coming-of-age story is done to near perfection, as it follows the lives of high school misfits coming together and learning about the importance of romance and friendship.
Watching the film now, it exists as a reminder of how and why high school was a great time of my life. Going to school with over 4,000 students, friends could be found — no matter who you were or what you enjoyed. The film conjures fond memories of high school that mirror the characters in the film. The performances are outstanding, especially Ezra Miller’s. The film is a must watch just to see his performance.
Don’t read the book; watch the movie. How often is that said?
This is the film I’ve seen the least amount of times, sadly, but its impact is as strong as every film on this list.
Ghost World is quirky, odd and extremely funny. The story focuses on two friends — Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) — and their shift from teenage best friends to less predictable adulthood. We can all relate to having a best friend, someone with similar interests and who will stand by you no matter what happens.
Ghost World takes this familiar situation and explores when that bond is tested. Enid wants to stay weird and a teenager. Rebecca has sights on growing up and exploring the world around her. This shift happens subtly, but it is so effective in helping these two charming and friendly characters figure out how to battle through life. (This is beautifully displayed via a scene where Enid visits Rebecca’s work in a coffee shop: Enid sticks to her carefree ways; Rebecca wonders when Enid is going to get a job.)
The friendship is tested in other ways. Enid takes a liking to an older man who is, more or less, a nerd. Today, Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi) would thrive; in 2001, he is an outsider. Enid loves that fact, and the two latch on to “outsider” fun — which Rebecca finds weird. Ghost World is a story about two best friends who come-of-age that perfectly captures the quirkiness of teenage friendship.
I saw October Sky on a school field trip, and it was the perfect setting to see this movie for the first time. After the credits rolled, my friends and I could not stop talking about how alike we were to the characters on screen. Friends, each with our own personalities, connected by a common goal (through building a rocket was not that goal).
October Sky is Homer Hickam’s story: how he, his friends and an entire community rallied together and persevered through the Cold War. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as young Hickam, Chris Owen, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper (in my favorite performance of his).
October Sky is rife with Americana and the good-feeling vibe of the 1950s. It’s a coming-of-age story filled with dark turns and twists, yet has an aura of comfort surrounding its characters and location. As a teen who often defied the norm, Hickam’s battle with his father — one wanted to fly rockets; the other wanted his son to work in the coal mine — often mirrored feelings of my own. Hickam’s father was rooted in reality: the sooner one can begin working, the sooner one can earn for the family. Homer, like most teens, dream about a future not tied down to old traditions. Watching October Sky helped me understand that what I want to do in life is for me to decide and no one else.
On top of this incredibly important message, October Sky has one of the saddest, yet beautifully done, endings in film history.
A near three hour documentary about early 1990s basketball seems daunting to watch. I get that. But, very little packs so much humanity and care into its story than Hoop Dreams.
The documentary, directed by Steve James, follows two young boys — William Gates and Arthur Agee — as they try to make their name in the high school basketball world of Chicago, Illinois. The two, respectively, follow a narrative we all know too well: one is from a poor neighborhood (struggling to make ends meet) and one is from a more well-to-do neighborhood (seemingly ensuring a college scholarship). But the film digs deeper, looking the social issues at play in the early 1990s — which, sadly, seems fresh in 2019.
I won’t go much deeper into the film, but Hoop Dreams is the quintessential coming-of-age story, invigorating because of its documentary status.
Reese Witherspoon’s film debut is more American folklore than reality, but Man in the Moon greatly captures one’s first “love”. Dani (played by Witherspoon) is 14 in 1957 and new neighbors bring some excitement to her boring life in Louisana. One of the new neighbors is Court Foster (played by Jason London), who becomes Dani’s crush.
Like all coming-of-age stories, obstacles get in the way of what she truly desires. Her sister, Maureen (played by Emily Warfield), eyes Trent, too. What seems like a run-of-the-mill love triangle is a powerful, honest look at something that usually happens to all of us: falling for someone older.
Man in the Moon provides some movie tropes that we have seen one too many times, but the film also gives us a really great Reese Witherspoon performance. Not only is she conflicted with love and having a crush, but Dani transforms into someone her family is conflicted about. Dani and her dad (played by Sam Watterson) become distanced, using this coming-of-age moment to bring them closer together.
The film is a moving tale about first love, family and finding oneself when stuck in a world one does not want to be.
Tons of people point to Robin Williams’ dramatic performance in Good Will Hunting as the cream of the crop of Williams’ dramatic acting. (He did win the Oscar). But, for me, Dead Poets Society is king.
The film has what every teenager craves: people my age sticking it to authority. Dead Poets Society is beautiful and tragic. A coming-of-age story where the beauty of literature, romance and everything in-between is taught by an incoming teacher played by Robin Williams. The class goes against the grain of what the school deems appropriate, and the students form a secret club to pursue their creative endeavors.
Dead Poets Society features incredible uplifting moments, none better than the end, but it’s the climax that leaves you heartbroken. The film captures the pressures and enjoyments of being a teenager. It is a film I saw at the right age, where the meaning hit home.
Il Posto, an Italian neo-realist film, tackles issues many post-college graduates experience in today’s world: finding the balance between work stability and enjoying a personal life.
Directed by Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto is direct and superbly satirical. When Domenico, played by Sandro Panseri, joins the Italian workforce in the early 1960s, he is stuck with banal work but stable pay. Through the early stages of his “corporate” job, he meets Antonietta, played by Loredana Detto, and the two hit it off. Domenico sees hope through the sludge of work life. But, Antonietta stands him up during a party; the hope shatters. Domenico battles internally for a balance between self-happiness and physical happiness (money).
The “neo-realism” films of Italy are among my favorite type of films. They capture the essence of their time with incredible realism, something the “mumblecore” films do this for this generation. The clash of pre-World War II and post-World War II cultures provide a fascinating look of coming to age in 1960s Europe.
In Il Posto, a young Domenico tries to earn his money for his family — a facet of life stemming from a pre-World War II world. He does so in a modern, industrial city of Milan. The culture clash from a coming-of-age perspective works on many levels. The strengths of Il Posto come from starkly told messages on culture and universal theme of survival.
The film follows “Deanie” (played by the wonderful Natalie Wood) and her life as she grows up in 1920s Kansas. Wood is sensational as a troubled teen who is looking to express herself sexually in a very conservative community. This all starts to unfold when she meets Bud (played by Warren Beatty).
“Deanie” is told by her parents to resist sex at all costs; Bud is told by his parents to find another partner to “satisfy” his sexual desires. The film has social critiques every which way you look (helped by the homely direction of Elia Kazan) and is a stronger film because of that fact. The sole heartbeat of the film is Wood and her performance as “Deanie”. She is our emotional attachment to the story and one we want to see garner some good will toward her. To modern eyes, her desires are normal and it is hard to wrap our minds around the social belittling in the film. Because of this “Deanie” becomes more mentally unstable as the film goes on, with pressures from all sides to do what those sides respectively want. But she survives.
Splendor in the Grass is further removed from the usual tropes of the coming-of-age genre, but the way “Deanie” moves from being a teenager to adulthood is a harrowing story to watch — and one that is worth being put on this list.
Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy is epic in scope. Consisting of the films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), Ray’s filmmaking illuminates growing up in India. The films as a collective is a crowning achievement in filmmaking, but also in how coming-of-age stories are universal no matter one’s background.
In Pather Panchali, a young Apu and his family struggle to make ends meet in a poor village in India. Filmed on location, the harsh conditions this family faces is on full display. Ray does not shy away from showing the viewer by location and with heartbreaking close-ups, the horrid living conditions Apu and his family deal with every day. Doing so makes for a tough watch, but it does wonders for the trilogy.
Aparajito and The World of Apu show Apu growing up and succeeding, despite his background. Aparajito (my personal favorite of the trilogy) deals with Apu succeeding in school while combating his personal feelings after the loss of his parents. The World of Apu has Apu struggling with love and more personal loss. Each one captures India that feels very real. Through the three films, we enter Apu’s life and take this journey with him that is unique in both storytelling and power.
Being a teenager is cool.
While films like The Outsiders show a rougher life for the American teenager, Rebel Without A Cause makes being a teen cool and fun. It helps when a film has the dynamics and chemistry of its three stars: James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. The film depicts Jim (Dean) and his slow acceptance in the teenage community of a California community. Slowly but surely Jim develops friends and relationships that blossom and help him understand that his angry antics are hurtful and ugly. Rebel Without A Cause consists of dark turns and important themes of acceptance and friendship.
Most notably are the performances of the three teens. Sadly, because of Dean’s death, this film exists as one of the few examples we get at Dean’s true stardom. He absolutely shines as Jim. Mineo and Wood equal the bigger-than-life on-screen presence of Dean. They form a trio worthy of be-friending — even if it is for a couple of hours.
They also ushered in the “birth” of the modern teenager, which I detail here.
Those are some of my favorite coming-of-age films throughout the years. What are some of your favorites?