Turbulent Teens – 17 unmissable coming-of-age movies

Turbulent Teens – 17 unmissable coming-of-age movies.


Director: Xavier Dolan

In 2009 Xavier Dolan burst onto the scene as one of the most exciting young writers and directors of a generation with I Killed My Mother. Dolan would explore the anger, frustration and hurt of teenage life through conflict, unspoken love and the need for escape as a mother and son clashed in a dance of independence. Dolan wrote the screenplay for I Killed My Mother at the tender age of sixteen, and due to this, he manages to convey the volatility of youth in a way few adult writers could muster. Here themes of family breakdown, emerging sexuality and an urgent need for independence dovetail with the need to escape parental control in a film that understands the complexities and fireworks of the teenage/parent relationship.


Director: Hal Ashby

To say Harold Chasen’s (Bud Cort) life is turbulent is an understatement. After all, this is a young man who spends all his time devising new suicide scenarios while taunting his emotionally distant mother (Vivian Pickles). Harold is disturbed! But he is also looking for something we all find ourselves seeking at one time or another, the meaning of life. On attending the funeral of an individual he doesn’t know, Harold meets 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude is a live-wire, eccentric, kind and mysterious, and for Harold, she is both magnetic and beautiful. As Harold and Maude grow closer, they slowly become one as they explore the meaning of life and the foundations of love, friendship and companionship.

Harold and Maude may have bombed at the box office, but it has since earned cult status through its wickedly sharp comedy, incredibly tender love story and humanistic approach. Alive with the music of Cat Steven’s Harold and Maude is a hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful and rare play that carries a deep and significant meaning that continues to resonate over time. It is a unique and delightful story of intergenerational healing and companionship as two souls find each other in the right place at just the right time.


Director: François Ozon

Francois Ozon is a master of observation and a cinematic surgeon of human emotions, desires and thoughts. Based on The Boy in the Back Row by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, Francois Ozon’s wickedly spikey story of power, passion and teenage imagination is primarily about the nature of storytelling.

English literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) believes he may have found a unique new talent in fifteen-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer); after all, one of the boy’s short assignments offers a fascinating glimpse into the private life of his best friend’s family. But there is also something disturbing and uncomfortable in the pages, a sense of voyeurism, manipulation and sexual control. Germain shares the text with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who agrees that there is enormous potential but also a troubling air to his work. The problem is Germaine is transfixed not only by the words on the page and the boy who writes them but the story of a family who has no idea they are being observed.

Ozon delights in exploring the hazy line between truth and fiction as Germain becomes a part of Claude’s creative game. Here he creates a Hitchcockian atmosphere as a manipulative teenager builds a prison of words for a teacher who mistakenly believes he is the boy’s intellectual superior.

KES (1969)

Director: Ken Loach

Ken Loach’s second feature film, Kes, would see him adapt Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, working closely with the author to maintain the book’s themes. Here Loach would explore the British education system and its failure of working-class children, as it forced them into manual labour despite their skills and abilities. Influenced by the Kitchen Sink movement and Italian neo-realism, Loach would craft a film bathed in documentary-like realism as he unpicked late 60s Britain and the class divide that haunted education, employment and opportunity.

Loach beautifully captures the hostile environment surrounding young Billy and the moments of calm and solitude he finds through his Kestral Kes as the adult world threatens to derail his freedom. Here Loach layers Billy’s journey with moments of humour, love, and profound sadness as Kes lays bare the realities of poverty, class oppression and isolation. While we would hope things had now moved on, Billy’s life and Loach’s commentary sadly still feel all too relevant in Britain today.


Director: Céline Sciamma

In Water Lilies and Tomboy, Céline Sciamma explored emerging identity, sexuality and gender through social pressures, forced conformity and emerging individuality. Girlhood would build on these core themes while exploring the social barriers of oppression, race and poverty at the heart of modern France. Girlhood is an intimate exploration of the need for escape and shared identity as it follows young Marieme as she escapes her family life through a gang of girls in a poor Paris suburb. But the sense of belonging and safety Marieme seeks comes at a price as she sacrifices her old self.

Céline Sciamma’s delicate yet compelling exploration of the rocky road to adulthood is fraught with anxiety, joy and uncertainty as she explores the working-class experience of a group of black girls in a society that ignores their talents, worth and culture.


Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

The 1960s would see a new generation define the cultural landscape of the Western world. This new generation was bold and creative and driven by a collective need to wipe away the sterility of the past. They rebelled against their parent’s view of the world and challenged political thinking while also giving birth to a new form of cinema, art and expressionism. Bernardo Bertolucci’s, The Dreamers is set during the student protests and riots that engulfed Paris in 1968, but this is no ordinary coming-of-age story of rebellion. Bertolucci’s hormonal and sexual story is about art, film and personal reinvention. It’s about the need for escape, belonging, and the rebellious urge to define new boundaries in sex and love as we follow Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American exchange student and the free-spirited twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green).

Alive with hormonal energy, excitement and uncertainty, Bertolucci captures the vibrant colours of youth in a way few films have managed through the heat of infatuation and the joy and pain of sexual discovery. The Dreamers eloquently plays with expressionism and escape and is never afraid to take its audience into the blurred lines between art, sex and cinema as American conservatism meets European liberalism.

MOMMY (2014)

Director: Xavier Dolan

If I Killed My Mother announced the arrival of Xavier Dolan, then Mommy cemented his place as one of his generation’s most exciting writers/directors. Mommy would embrace the loneliness and uncontrollable anger of teenage rebellion and the heartbreak of parental support against all odds through a poignant, emotional and beautiful story of a mother’s struggle to support her volatile son. But Dolan’s film is also a dissection of isolation, rebellion, freedom and social imprisonment. Each character screams for escape as they claw at the social bars that keep them contained. Mommy is Xavier Dolan at his best, as he wraps his audience in stunning cinematography and sublime performances that never shy away from the powerful themes of heartbreak, love and despair held in Mommy’s captivating screenplay. Once seen, never forgotten, Mommy is a modern masterpiece.


LÉOLO (1992)

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon

Is Lauzon’s French-Canadian film a dark fantasy or a powerful exploration of adolescent mental health, sexual discovery and dysfunctional family life? This question remains debated over 30 years after Léolo’s release as we follow young Léo Lozeau as he writes in his journal. Lauzon’s film swings from Léo’s fantasy world to the darkness of the real world surrounding him. His imaginary world is full of childhood fears, comedy, fantasies and uncertain but exciting new sexual thoughts. At the same time, his external world is rooted in fragmented family relationships, declining mental health and community isolation.

While Lauzon’s film may initially inhabit Italian-inspired dark comedy, Léolo takes a much more serious turn as we realise that Léo has no choice but to live in the fantasy world of his writing, the real world far too painful and upsetting for his young mind. As Léo says, “Solitude is my castle. That’s where I have my chair, my table, my bed, my breeze and my sun. When I sit anywhere but in my solitude. I sit in exile. I sit in Fakeland. Because I dream, I’m not”. Here Lauzon offers us a profoundly challenging and complex portrait of adolescent mental health and escapism through the often grotesque dreamlike state of a boy trying to make sense of an incomprehensible adult world.


Director: John Singleton

John Singleton’s uncompromising exploration of inner-city life for young African Americans not only broke the glass ceiling but took a sledgehammer to it in creating one of the most influential and important films of the 1990s. While many may argue Boyz n the Hood is a typical coming-of-age film of the period, nothing could be further from the truth. Here Singleton’s movie not only embraced the spirit and drive of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) but further explored the reality of inner-city life for African American teens in the early 1990s. 

Singleton would directly confront systemic racism, neglect, and police/community relations at a time when the Rodney King case only further highlighted the institutional racism still rampant in American society. Boyz N the Hood would be the first of several movies from Singleton exploring race and culture in the United States, but it is Boyz N the Hood that remains his finest work.   


Director: Roy Andersson

Few films encapsulate teenage emotion and intensity, like Roy Andersson’s beautiful and complex tale of young love in 70s Sweden. Here Anderson tenderly explores the first throws of love, jealousy and emotional pain against a backdrop of dysfunctional family life. Anderson combines the beauty of Bergman with a darkly comic, tender and nuanced coming-of-age tale that demonstrates how family life steers and affects the life chances of young people. But it is the realism held in Anderson’s filming when exploring first love, sex and emotional development that makes A Swedish Love Story a rich and stunning picture that sears itself on the viewer’s memory.

Often overlooked as a classic of the coming-of-age genre, A Swedish Love Story is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful explorations of first love ever brought to the screen. Here Anderson’s tale carries a dreamlike Romeo and Juliet-inspired intensity as two young lovers meet, fall apart due to family struggles, and attempt reconciliation. A Swedish Love Story is one of the finest coming-of-age movies ever made and deserves far more attention in modern film journalism.


Director: Andrew Haigh

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a stunning exploration of one young man’s journey through the emotional, social and personal turmoil of family breakdown and neglect. Here Haigh’s exploration of modern America and the relationship between family, community and opportunity is not only challenging and relentless but rooted in conversations on the social division of the United States. Through the journey of Charley (Charlie Plummer), Haigh captures the loneliness and isolation of teenage life and the devastating realities of childhood poverty and neglect. However, unlike many similar movies, Lean on Pete never falls into a simplistic, one-tone narrative path as we follow Charley and an ageing racehorse named Pete. Here Plummer’s performance is nothing short of career-defining as he offers us a journey of self-discovery against a backdrop of poverty and injustice.

Lean on Pete delicately explores the coming-of-age process from the perspective of a hurt and isolated young man who has lost all trust in humans. Charley’s only peace, calm and solace come from an animal who listens without judgement. But, as Charley discovers, the world is far from a forgiving place, and no matter how far and how fast you run, we all have to face the demons of our past eventually.


Director: Nadine Lebaki

Nadine Lebaki’s sublime, challenging and emotional film weaves its way through the streets of Lebanon like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, writhing with the city’s energy, emotion and heat as we follow young Zain through a fog of abuse, separation and longing. Here, Lebaki expertly offers us a powerful reflection of our damaged world from a child’s point of view. Capernaum sears itself into the memory, creating a journey of beauty, humanity and darkness as Zain sits uncomfortably between childhood innocence and forced adult existence.

The performance of young Zain Al Rafeea is one of pure authenticity and beauty as we travel at his side, longing for his happiness and security. Here, Rafeea reflects the light and dark of his world through a single look or gesture. In many ways, Zain’s journey echoes a Dickensian novel as he fights for place, purpose and security in a city where the odds are stacked against him. However, there is no classic happy ending as Lebaki’s razor-sharp exploration of the no-mans-land between childhood and adulthood takes hold.


Director: Lucía Garibaldi

Sharks use their extraordinary senses to find their prey. But humans also use their senses to hunt, especially in finding a sexual partner. Uruguayan writer-director Lucia Garibaldi’s debut feature, The Sharks, submerges us in the burning and predatory desire of emerging sexuality, creating a fascinating portrait of adolescent desire. As the sun beats down, Rosina (Romina Bentancur) runs along a small coastal path towards the sea as her father urgently calls her name. But as Rosina enters the water, she turns her head back to see her father, realising her escape is only momentary as a fin glides through the salty waves near her. It’s a summer when Rosina will work with her father and his small ragtag group of men to keep pathways clear, bushes trimmed, and pools in working order. But it is also a summer when Rosina meets Joselo (Federico Morosini), a young man only a few years older than her. Rosina will be intrigued by Joselo’s every move, as lust and desire mix with adoration and curiosity.


Director: Alexandre Moratto

*Originally reviewed at BFI Flare 2019

Socrates (Christian Malheiros) is fifteen-years-old when his thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of his mother. Struggling to keep his head above water on the streets of São Paulo, Socrates attempts to keep the family home running and is yet to inform the authorities that he is now alone. But poverty and isolation are only a part of Socrates’ troubles as he navigates his emerging sexuality on city streets where safety cannot be taken for granted, especially for a young gay man. As Socrates attempts to find a route through the grief, poverty and volatility around him, he meets a young man who works as a labourer and enters a secretive affair. But all is not as it first appears, and Socrates is about to discover that secrets and lies thread through the gay male experience in a country where homosexuality is feared and oppressed. Alexandre Moratto’s debut feature is nothing short of heartbreaking and compelling as it offers us a journey into grief and loss performed and produced by at-risk teens living on the streets of São Paulo.


Director: Catherine Corsini

Sometimes a coming-of-age journey is less about an individual teenage experience and more about the impact parents have on a child’s future. Based on Christine Angot’s semi-autobiographical bestseller, we are taken on an epic and sweeping journey into the lives of a mother and daughter in Châteauroux, France and an absent father whose life holds a series of toxic and devastating secrets and actions. The year is 1958, and 25-year-old Rachel (Virginie Efira) is about to meet a handsome yet mysterious young man in the office canteen, Philippe (Niels Schneider). Before long, the pair embark on a passionate affair, and Rachel finds herself pregnant with his child. However, Philippe has no intention of marrying Rachel or, for that matter, allowing his daughter to bear his family name. But as their child becomes a teenager, Philippe decides to finally take an interest with devastating consequences. Corsini’s compelling drama wraps us in an epic journey into the darkness of narcissism, abuse and control and the long-term effects of denial on family life.


Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth is not your average coming-of-age film. You will not find the empathetic character-driven sensibilities of John Hughes here, nor will you be able to relate to the struggles of the teenagers. This is a profoundly misanthropic film, but would we expect anything different from Yorgos Lanthimos?

As a Greek patriarch asserts his dominance over his children by keeping them contained within their family compound, he attempts to teach them an alternative view of the world that fits his damaged vision. They’re intentionally taught incorrect definitions of words and encouraged to compete against one another through animalistic physical strength and endurance contests. What prevents them from leaving is the fear that they will be killed by the unknown monsters that lurk beyond the house’s walls.

Often regarded as Lanthimos’ break-out film, Dogtooth is wrapped in surrealism and fear. Is Dogtooth a satirical take on the Edenic myth, or is it a dissection of parental abuse and power? Lanthimos ultimately leave you to unpick the puzzle. 


Director: Simon Bird

Do you remember the long summer holidays away from school at the tender age of 15? As we grow older, many of us now look back at these times with rose-tinted specs, but those summer breaks were often painful, disappointing and challenging for our parents and us. During those forced holidays, our hormonal confusion and desire for freedom clashed with relentless boredom and frustration leading to uncomfortable conversations, brief moments of pleasure and embarrassing excursions. The reality of those long summer vacations is rarely reflected on film, with many movies opting to tell us tales of rebellion, defiance, sex and drugs over teenage life’s tedious and frustrating realities. Simon Bird’s Days of the Bagnold Summer joyously breaks that convention.

Bird offers us a delightfully intuitive comedy layered with tenderness and emotion as we follow mother and son, Sue and Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave and Monica Dolan), during a lazy, challenging and transformative summer holiday. Bird celebrates the uneasy and unsure love of a mother and son as adolescence takes hold, and both are caught in a loop of loneliness and isolation. Here Bird reflects and unpicks an often unspoken reality of life – adolescence and mid-life both majorly suck!


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