Essential Coming of Age films

Coming of age stories have existed in filmmaking for decades, they offer us a window into the complexity, joy, frustration and urgency of our early experiences. Often reflecting back to us the intense feelings and powerful experiences we have on our journey to adult life. These films play with our notions of childhood innocence versus adult realities, alongside the intensity of teenage rebellion, self-exploration, intense friendships and excitement.

As a genre ‘coming of age’ has housed some the most powerful, engaging, funny and emotional films of the past 40 years. The genre adapting over time to reflect the changing experience of children and young people. We often forget that the ‘teenager’ is a relatively modern label for the transition from child to adult, with film being a major instigator and exponent of its creation. Equally, the notional time taken in transition from child to adult has increased over the decades, as education has expanded and society’s views on childhood and youth have changed. At every step in this journey, the genre has reflected back these changes to the viewer. Sometimes challenging our perceptions, often making us laugh and cry, and always asking us to search our own personal experiences during the most formative years of our lives.

Stand by Me –1986

Based on the amazing Stephen King novella The Body Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest coming of age films ever produced. A love letter to simpler times and childhood freedom; Stand by Me dovetails nostalgia with a layered exploration of family, social structures and bereavement. Its delivery is delicate, nuanced and deeply touching; boys on the verge of adolescence, developing their self-identity within a restricted community where family history influences opportunity.

Stand By Me

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12… Jesus does anyone?

The Writer – Stand By Me

Eighth Grade –2019

Bo Burnham’s stunning directorial debut Eighth Grade reminds you of early adolescence in all its awkward social interaction, tentative steps and humour, with a truly remarkable film that captures the emotions, turmoil and social development of being 13 in a fresh and natural style.

Eighth Grade never seeks to over dramatise the formative years of early adolescence, providing a beautifully realised and delivered snapshot of a girls journey into adulthood that encapsulates the intensity, emotion and humour of teenage life, in way many other films within the genre fail to achieve.Based around the final year of middle school Eighth Grade follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who’s confident video blogging alter ego hides the insecurities of her real journey into adult life. Unlike her confident online presence, Kayla struggles to find her own place in the social structures of middle school, longing for friendship and belonging in peer groups based on popularity and perceived confidence during a transitional year for every young person Kayla meets.

Au Revoir les Enfants –1987

Louis Malles 1987 masterpiece set in Nazi-occupied France, focuses on the friendship between two boys at a Catholic boarding school. Direction and performances are beautiful, heart wrenching and completely natural. Au Revoir les Enfants ability to harness the feeling and emotions of young people forced into the harsh reality of oppression and war is truly stunning. Playing with the confusion, conflicted beliefs and emotion of young adolescence, while also imbedding these into a social culture of fear, control, genocide and political upheaval.

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Call Me By Your Name –2017

Adapted from the novel by Andre Aciman, Luca Guadagnino’s film is a rich exploration of young love, hidden desire and sexuality. Set in Northern Italy during the early 1980’s, this is a film unafraid to show the complexities of feelings, actions and emotions surrounding sexual orientation and love. The film understands the intensity of teenage life, the burning want, endless jealously and the vulnerability of early sex and love, especially for those hiding their sexuality or newly discovering feelings. Timothee Chalamet gives a performance of layered emotion and emerging self confidence. Bringing Elio to life while sharing his inner most feelings with us through a single look, gesture or action. Call Me By Your Name is one of the finest portrayals of teenage love, identity and belonging in a generation.  

The Breakfast Club – 1985

A timeless exploration of identity and conformity in teenage life, from the master of 80’s filmmaking John Hughes. The Breakfast Club is a still a powerful, humorous and sharp observation on youth sub culture, difference and identity. While dated in places that play to its 1980s audience, it still manages to be relevant to youth culture today.

The Breakfast Club

My god, are we gonna be like our parents?

Andrew – The Breakfast Club

400 Blows – 1959

One of the finest depictions of young male adolescence ever seen, Francois Traffaunts 1959 film is still a template for many others within its genre. Traffaunts film is intensely touching, following a boy growing up in Paris, on the verge of falling into a life of crime. 400 Blows examination of societies that label young people, forcing them to accept the labels they are given is powerful and visually stunning.    

Empire of the Sun – 1987

One of the most overlooked of Spielberg’s films, Empire of the Sun adapted from J.G. Ballard’s novel is a beautifully crafted and performed exploration of childhood innocence during war. Following Jim (Christian Bale) through his transition from a wealthy English schoolboy in British controlled Shanghai, to a street wise young teenager in an occupied land. Empire mixes childhood imagination and dreams with the brutality of war and adulthood in way few films manage. There are moments of childhood wonder and exploration set to a backdrop of violence and control that make this film truly unique. We see Jim change before our eyes, accepting his need to survive at any cost and fend for himself. While still being a boy who has limited understanding of the events taking place in his surroundings.      

Empire of the Sun

Ladybird – 2017

One of the most genuine and heartfelt modern films exploring the transition from girlhood to womanhood, Ladybird explores the complexity of emotion, love and parental conflict with ease. Characters are well rounded and semi-autobiographical in construct, proving performances that feel real and engaging. Alongside this Ladybird manages to truly embrace the feelings, conflict and desire for escape present in adolescence.  

Beautiful Thing –1996

Based on Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play, Beautiful Thing is not only a joyous exploration of emerging sexual identity and love, but also a film that challenged perceptions of gay love in a Britain still living under the shadow of HIV and AIDS. Set on a council estate in London, this is a film that shuns the boundaries of class in gay storytelling. Giving its audience characters that young people from working class backgrounds can relate to. Beautiful Thing is still one of the most tender, warm and relevant films exploring coming of age for young gay men ever produced. Covering serious issues alongside the first throws of love. This is a film that breaks down stereotypes, shows gay love positively, and embraces change. Beautiful Thing it not only an amazing coming of age film, but also a statement of inclusion and diversity in a changing 90s U.K.

Beautiful Thing

Rebel Without a Cause – 1955

Based on the 1944 book of the same name by Robert Lindner, Rebel Without a Cause plays with an emerging American fear of juvenile delinquency alongside the creation of the teenager. However, it also provides a film that challenges American perceptions of family, emotion and rebellion.

Catapulting James Dean to international stardom, while mirroring the eventual cause of his early death, Rebel has earned mythic status in the decades since its release. Rebel is not a perfect picture, and compared to a film like the 400 Blows has not dated well. However, it was pioneer of American cinema, taking new societal themes of youth identity and pushing them into the American consciousness. This film provided a template for teenage filmmaking that is still used today, making it a true classic of American cinema.      

Its just the age… The age where nothing fits

Judy’s Mum – Rebel Without a Cause

Carrie – 1976

Adapted from Stephen Kings book of the same name, Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie plays with the coming of age genre and its links to horror. Carrie encapsulates a teenage culture based on popularity, and the horror of difference. This is extremely clever film making that follows its literary roots with reverence, and is far more complex in its portrayal of teenage life than its given credit for. Carrie masterfully explores feelings of teenage isolation, showing the cruelty that exists in peer groups led by image, popularity and sexual prowess. Using experiences common to anyone who went to school while twisting them into its web of tension. It is easy to label Carrie as a horror film, but this is coming of age with an horrific conclusion, providing the template for a whole swath of teen/horror productions.

Carrie

Billy Elliot – 2000

Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot provides us with a coming of age story that challenges the boundaries of masculinity in film. It is easy now to underestimate the power of this film on its release especially in breaking down stereotypes of boys in dance, but Billy Elliot is a truly ground breaking coming of age picture. Set to the backdrop of the miner’s strikes in County Durham. Billy Elliot uses its time and place beautifully in exploring masculinity in communities forged through manual work and divided by economic change. We see Billy struggle with the confines of his community, while still embracing its spirit and history. This reverence for his community but urge to challenge it allows the structures of masculinity within his world to change alongside his coming of age journey.

Billy Elliot

Almost Famous – 2000

Cameron Crowes film is not only a love letter to 1970’s music, but a beautiful exploration of the coming of age. Following 15 year old aspiring music writer William Miler, Crowe weaves together music and nostalgia with a social commentary on 70’s masculinity. However, what makes this film different is Crowes expertly delivered examination of the differences in coming of age for young men and women in society still built on gender divides. There are big social themes held within this warm and comforting picture ranging from sexuality to unrequited teenage love. All wrapped into a film that touches your heart and soul through music, humour and the pure excitement of youth.  

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool

Lester Bangs – Almost Famous

Mean Creek – 2004

Films exploring the dark side of teenage development are often overlooked; they do not give us happy endings, but encourage us to reflect on how the turbulent emotions in teenage life can lead to horrifying acts. Mean Creek is a masterclass in exploring the emotional development of young people, and the powerful feelings of anger, betrayal and helplessness present in the transition to adulthood. This is a film that challenges our notions of childhood innocence, while encouraging us to explore the absence of adult guidance in youth.

Mean Creak

Lean on Pete – 2018

Andrew Haigh’s 2018 Lean on Pete is a masterful exploration of a young mans journey through emotional, social and personal turmoil, while adeptly exploring modern America and the relationship between family, community and opportunity. Lean of Pete captures the loneliness and isolation of being 15 years old in a world where your options are limited by family and place perfectly. It never sinks into melodrama or over emotional delivery as we follow Charley (Charlie Plummer) and an ageing race horse ‘Pete’ on a journey of self discovery, against a backdrop of poverty. This is a film that explores coming of age through the eyes of young man who has lost trust in humans, finding solace and comfort in an animal who listens.

Girl – 2018

Providing us with a transgender coming of age story Lucas Dhonts debut is not without its controversy, especially in casting a 15 year old non transgender actor in the main role. However, despite these debates, this is a film that offers us a truly immersive journey, and a huge step forward in transgender lives on screen. Film carries a unique power to change public perception and understanding, and Girl does that with beauty and exceptional performances that offer true emotional resonance. 

Sexual awakening, peer groups and gender identity are handled with care, while also allowing the audience to develop their understanding of the challenges faced by transgender young people in a society of set gender boundaries. 

Girl

Giant Little Ones – 2018

High school coming out movies are a staple of LGBT cinema, making it challenging to offer anything truly unique to wide collective of films in the genre. With Giant Little Ones director Keith Behrman brings us a fresh twist on the genre while maintaining a high school movie aesthetic. Early in proceedings Behrman dispatches with the usual motifs of a high school coming out story, opting for a far more modern exploration of sexuality in contemporary society. 

Franky (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas (Darren Mann) have been close friends since childhood, spending the majority of their days together, alongside active after school activities in the swimming team. Their friendship is soon challenged and changed by a night fuelled by alcohol, where masculinity and experimentation mix to create explosive results for both young men.

Minding the Gap – 2019

Exploring the Skateboarding peer group of his youth Bing Liu provides a multi layered documentary that speaks to the challenging journey from boyhood to manhood in a community of limited opportunity. Minding the Gap mixes the adrenaline soaked world of skateboarding culture with a nuanced exploration of masculinity, coming of age and family.

Starting its life as a collection of home shot skateboard videos alongside his friends Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan. Bing Liu builds on these rough beginnings to create a portrait of his community Rockford, Illinois and the lives of the young men who provided him with the stability of escapism and belonging growing up; the thrill of skateboarding intercut with the realities of dysfunctional family life. Bing Liu clearly demonstrates the importance of youth sub culture in a feeling of belonging and place, while demonstrating its fleeting nature as adult life and responsibility takes hold. 

Key themes of masculinity and its toxic presence in many family structures are unflinchingly explored, alongside the perpetuation of these traits via poverty of opportunity. 

Your whole life society tells you, like ‘oh, be a man, and you are strong and you are tough and margaritas are gay’ you know, like. You know. You don’t grow up thinking that’s the way you are. When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that

Zach Mulligan – Minding the Gap
Giant Little Ones

Socrates – 2019

Alexandre Moratto’s debut feature is a stunning and deeply emotional portrayal of a young mans journey through bereavement, isolation and family breakdown. Produced by the Quero Institute in Brazil with support from UNICEF, Socrates empowers young people from challenging backgrounds, as producers, co-writers and actors. This input from young people gives Socrates a realism and natural delivery that reflects the thin line between poverty and security in inner city Brazilian society. 

Mid90s – 2019

During a summer in 90s Los Angeles, 13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) finds belonging and acceptance in a peer group of older skaters, escaping the trappings of his abusive yet conflicted older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and tender yet struggling mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson). As Stevie’s bond to the group increases, he is taken on a journey of self discovery, family turmoil and friendship realities, challenging the boundaries of his social and family structures. 

The interface between the peer group and family is beautifully constructed, demonstrating the loss of family influence as Stevie grows in his social confidence. A confidence built on risk taking behaviours that embolden his sense of burgeoning masculinity. Exploration of Stevie’s relationship with his controlling and domestically aggressive older brother (Hedges) changes as the realities of power and control shift; Stevie developing understanding of the family dynamics at play through his peer group. His brother battling his own control issues, as his younger sibling slowly slips through his fingers. 

Mid 90s isn’t afraid to show the positives and negatives of peer influence, demonstrating the dangers of troubled youth acting as influencers, and the flip side of young male bonding in developing emotional support structures.

Mid90s

Juno – 2007

Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Juno makes a decision on the life her child will have before it’s born, only for emotions and choices to be complicated when the young father gets involved. This is poignant and funny exploration of teenage emotions and desires generated from random encounters that transcends the boundaries of pure comedy to something so much deeper.

As boyfriends go, Paulie Bleeker is totally boss. He is the cheese to my macaroni. And I know people are supposed to fall in love before they reproduce, but – I guess normalcy isn’t really our style

Juno

The Virgin Suicides – 1999

In suburban 1970’s America, five beautiful sisters are quarantined away from social interaction. While the local boys obsess about the mysterious and reclusive sisters, the girls fates are tied to the control and rules that stifle their emerging womanhood. The Virgin Suicides is a tough and complex exploration of religious control, teenage repression, obsession and mortality.

The Virgin Suicides

Elephant – 2003

Based on the horror of the Columbine school shootings, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant takes us on a journey into an average school day that ended in tragedy. Never over dramatising, or embellishing, this is a portrait of teen normalities versus extremes bred from isolation and hate.

Elephant

And Then I Go (Triggered in U.K) – 2017

Based on the novel Project X by Jim Shepherd, this is a film that tackles the isolation, anger and alienation of bullied youth and its interface with violence and vengeance. Unafraid to take the realities of peer influence and harmful actions this is a film that takes you to the barriers of teen turmoil.

And Then I Go (Triggered UK)

Y Tu Mama También – 2001

Perfectly capturing the raging hormones and search for identity inherent in 17 year old young men, this is a bittersweet journey of discovery, friendship and change across a summer of transformation.

The Last Picture Show – 1971

Beautifully exploring the interface between teenage life and the limited opportunity of dying town in Texas, Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary on the desire for escape and change is still essential viewing.

The Last Picture Show

The Dreamers – 2003

Bernardo Bertolucci mixes the student protests and riots on late 1960s Paris with themes of emerging sexuality and identity to create to true masterpiece of film. Buzzing with hormones and energy, The Dreamers captures the intensity of teenage relationships and the dangers of infatuation beautifully.

” Yes, I’m drunk. And you’re beautiful. And tomorrow morning, I’ll be sober but you’ll still be beautiful”

Matthew – The Dreamers

Kes – 1969

Ken Loach mixes the isolation and loneliness of a young man suffering bullying and abuse with the power of companionship only animals can provide. Kes is still a heart rending portrayal of the journey into adolescence and the interface between hope and stark social realities.

Kes

Sixteen Candles – 1984

Sixteen Candles has become a classic of the Hughes teen movie collection, providing beautifully scripted and delivered comedy that has stood the test of time. This is a film that encapsulates the anger, joy and urgency of coming of age for girls and boys in a sweet, comedic style that still feels relevant. A truly engaging script and performances help you to forgive the typical saccharine 80s ending.

Dazed and Confused – 1993

Celebrating the last day of school in the summer of 1976 in Austin, Texas. Richard Linklater explores the interface between teenage sub cultures and ages in a coming of age film that celebrates the complexity of teenage life and belonging in 70s America.

Dazed and Confused

Well, all I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could while I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could while I was stuck in this place

Don Dawson – Dazed and Confused

Pretty in Pink – 1986

Andie is an outcast at her high school, hanging out either with her older boss who owns the record store where she works, or her quirky classmate Duckie, who has a crush on her. When one of the rich and popular kids at school, Blane asks Andie out, it seems too good to be true. As Andie starts falling for Blane, she begins to realizes that dating someone from a different social sphere is not easy.

Leolo – 1992

Living in an eccentric and volatile family Leo submerses himself in the extremes of his imagination, where fantasy mixes with burgeoning sexual awakening and adulthood. Often challenging in its portrayal of mental health and teen escapism, Leolo constantly asks the audience to view family, love and belonging through the eyes of its young lead, never resorting to easy social or personal answers as he grows.

Leolo

L.I.E – 2001

Paul Dano’s first film is an outstanding exploration of gender, sexuality and isolation in adolescence, that packs a punch in its honest and powerful portrayal of vulnerability in adolescence and predatory pedophilia. Paul Dano gives an exceptional debut performance that delicately and powerfully explores the turbulence of sexuality and gender in youth and the vulnerability of unrequited love.

C.R.A.Z.Y – 2005

Zachary is confused and conflicted in equal measure by his burgeoning sexuality and Canadian Catholic religious family. Finding solace and reflection in music, Zachary slowly accepts his own role in challenging the family stereotypes and structures in this beautifully constructed coming of age comedy/drama.

C.R.A.Z.Y

Love Simon – 2018

Love Simon is one of the defining LGBT movies of the millennial generation. With a wonderful script and excellent performances Love Simon does the book proud while also echoing some of John Hughes masterful teen films of the 80’s. This is a film that truly pushes the mainstream inclusion of LGBT stories in film, providing a feel good celebration of difference alongside the anxieties of inclusion, belonging and peer support.

Announcing who you are to the world is pretty terrifying

Simon Spier – Love Simon

Moonlight – 2016

Barry Jenkins OSCAR award winning film is a reminder that coming of age comes at different points for different people, and can be influenced by society, culture and acceptance. Following three stages in the journey to manhood of Chiron, Jenkins demonstrates that the coming of age journey never truly ends for any for us.

Moonlight

Boyhood – 2014

Richard Linklater’s masterpiece of filmmaking over time, takes us on a truly unique coming of age journey through the eyes of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke). Filmed over 13 years, Boyhood is not only one of the most detailed and exquisite portrayals of the journey to adulthood ever seen, but also a glorious technical achievement in filmmaking. This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, showing the joy, fear and emotion of coming of age in a way few films before or after have managed to achieve.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – 2012

Based on his own first novel published back in 1999, Stephen Chbosky’s own adaptation of his book is full of honesty and energy. With a talented lead cast Perks of Being a Wallflower glows with the intensity of teenage belonging and experience, alongside the darkness of repression and childhood memories. Beautifully exploring the role of teenage friendships and relationships in building self identity, Perks is not afraid to show the belonging and isolation of adolescence in equal measure. This is a film that reminds us all of the journey we take in analysing the childhood experiences and memories that have a direct impact on our emerging adult; a journey of understanding that often lasts far beyond our teenage years.

Right now we are alive and in this moment I swear we are infinite

Charlie – The Perks of Being a Wallflower