By Hunter Harris
Growing up is hard to do. Before “adulting” — that is, clumsily impersonating our role models and pretending we have our lives together — became a buzzword, we “came of age.” The action is still the same: staying out too late and trying to “find ourselves,” or building a new life in a strange city.
The best thing about coming-of-age movies is that you can watch them and get a better understanding of yourself today. The awkwardness of getting older is more than acne and puberty, and more than the milestones of academic life. Growing up is about looking around and piecing together what you want and don’t want, who is and isn’t worth listening to, where you do and don’t feel safe. Whether you’re working through these internal dilemmas in someone else’s house — in a family home or with a band on tour — or in your first apartment, it’s all tough.
These are the best coming-of-age movies we can think of. And while many such stories are about love, we’ve culled a list of films that have a little more to offer than a traditional romance, because you don’t have to fall in love to find yourself. “Coming of age” isn’t about meeting the person you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with, but deciding what you want to spend the rest of your life as.
Keep checking back before your next movie night. We’ll be adding new movies to this list regularly.
It is one terrifying movie. But when you’re not jumping out of your seat with terror at Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), you’ll be laughing at the hilarious, earnest interactions of the kids in the Losers Club. It is like a mash-up of Stranger Things, Stand By Me, and your worst nightmares.
Riding around town on their bikes, the kids in the Losers Club experience the summer of our imaginations. No rules, no adults, just boundless possibility, with the stormclouds of growing up gathering in the distance.
(1986) Stand By Me
The group of friends in
Stand By Me are still kids by their end of their trek to find the supposed dead body in the woods. But like the kids in Stranger Things, they emerge altered from their brush with the adult world of death and strangeness. Childhood will never be the same after realizing its permanence.
Stand By Me does its magic best when viewed by an adult. Instead of a coming-of-age tale, Stand By Me is a becoming-a-kid-again tale. You’ll remember, briefly, the world as you once saw it.
After neighbors catch them playing a harmless game with boys, five orphaned sisters in Turkey face outsized punishment. Their conservative grandmother keeps them on house arrest, and mounts a plan to get her granddaughters in marrying shape. But the sisters won’t submit to their family’s oppressive plan for them without scheming first.
Narrated by the youngest sister,
Mustang shows five young women on the cusp of a great and terrible change. This is the story of childhood’s forced end.
(1994) Little Women
There’s no more iconic coming-of-age story than
Little Women, which tracks the lives of the four March sisters. Plus, it features a very, very young Christian Bale.
(2016) Sing Street
The year is 1985. The place, Dublin. Conor’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) parents are fighting. His new school is run by a strict madman. Bullies chase him into bathrooms. So, he does what any boy with a lot of feelings and a musical ear
would: start a band. Coming of age was never so catchy.
(2013) The Spectacular Now
Young love’s the topic of so many films, but rarely is it handled with this earnest, authentic grace. While
The Spectacular Now plays into the trope of a bookish girl dating a bad boy, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller bring a three-dimensional intensity to their young passion that’ll make you ache for your own high school loves.
This mind-bending movie is unlike any other coming-of-age film ever made.
Nemo Nobody is 118 years old, and the last mortal member of the human race. In honor of his birthday, he tells a reporter of his childhood and looks back at the pivotal moment in their childhood. A boy is on a train tracks. He can choose to go with his mother on the train, his father on the tracks, or run away. From there, Mr. Nobody sees the infinite trajectories of his life.
(2013) The Way Way Back
14-year-old Duncan’s summer down the Jersey shore with his mom and her skeevy boyfriend is not shaping up to be any fun at all. Desperate to get out of the house, Duncan takes a job at Water Wizz water park and finds a friend in the park’s overly friendly manager. The trials and tribulations of young teenage-dom have never been so endearing. Plus, seeing Steve Carrell play a villain is worth the watch.
(2001) Y Tu Mamá También
Alfonso Cuarón directed what is now considered a seminal classic coming-of-age film. The title roughly translates to “and your mother, too,” a version of an insult tagline. (Think: “your mom ____.”) The film follows Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), two teenage boys, as they take their life on the road. The friendship gets knotty when they invite Luisa, a beautiful mysterious woman — there’s always one of those — to join them, sowing discord in their friendship.
Elvis Mitchell, writing in
, called the movie, “fast, funny, unafraid of sexuality and finally devastating.” The New York Times
(2002) Whale Rider
Keisha Castle-Hughes received an Academy Award nomination for her role as the plucky Paikea, a young Maori girl struggling to come to terms with her patrilineal tribe.
Paikea, called Pai, is a direct descendant of the current chieftain. The only problem: she’s a girl. To make matters worse, Pai had a twin stillborn brother. By tradition, her late brother should be chief. Pai’s grandfather won’t acknowledge her — until she rides the whale, that is.
Whale Rider succeeds by taking the harrowing process of growing up and transposing it onto the strict rules of tradition. In order to grow, Pai must subvert tradition. Breaking the boundaries of her tightly-wound society is Pai’s coming-of-age ordeal, and every moment of this New Zealand film will have you on edge.
Boyhood is the coming-of-age film that literally came of age. Filmed over 12 years, the movie follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he traipses through adolescence. At the conclusion, Mason leaves for college, his “boyhood” coming to a close as the credits roll.
Richard Linklater’s film is remarkable because it danced between fiction and reality. We are watching a fiction, but the actors — including Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater — are subject to the very real effects of time.
Nothing truly remarkable happens in the film, which lasts a generous 3 hours, but that’s exactly the point. This bildungsroman is about the slow churn of self-discovery and the patience that it requires.
(2000) Almost Famous
Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) said it best: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is very, very uncool. So when the precocious teen gets a chance to profile an up and coming rock band for Rolling Stone, he jumps at it. There’s the obvious career boost, of course, but also the thrill of the road paired with the rock’s outlaw fantasy.
Cross crossing the country, director Cameron Crowe’s protagonist gets a lesson in reporting — no one is ever a reliable source on their own life — but also in friendship. He’s quickly smitten with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a young blonde fangirl who is low key sleeping with the band’s lead singer. Penny is troubled and flighty, and William is the only one who really cares about her. But even he tries to consume her free spirit. “I always tell the girls, never take it seriously,” Penny explains once. “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt, if you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends. “
(2016) The Fits
Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old tomboy that doesn’t know how to be a teenage girls. As girls her age have their first awkward crushes, she hangs out with her brother, watching him flirt with girls, laugh with his friends, and train to be a boxer. She’s modeled her life after his, until now: Toni is transfixed by the cool girls, ones who seem unbothered by insecurities like her own.
So Toni skips her brother’s boxing lessons, and instead tries out for the local rec center’s dance team. She watches them, and mimics their femininity. When an eerie sickness starts to spread other girls on the team, she hopes she’s not affected by the same convulsions.
There’s a certain amount of suspense to this movie — what disease causes these girls to shake and shiver without warning? Where did it start, and how is it being transmitted? But its heart is in Toni’s coming of age story as she begins to understand gender performance, and her place as a young woman in her community.
Brooklyn is a 1950s immigrant story that starts out simple enough: Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) has just moved from Ireland to the borough (against her mother’s better judgement) for a better life. She leaves the ship that brought her to America’s shores, ready to find the American promise she’s heard so much about. In a strange city with rowdy Americans, she’s lonely enough to sob into her own sheets. She might not have left a full life beyond, but it was a satisfying one.
Soon enough, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a boyishly handsome Italian guy at a Catholic mixer. For a while,
Brooklyn masquerades as a love story: The pair sweetly fall in love and plan a life together. Then a tragedy at home in Ireland requires Eilis to return to her sleepy hometown.
And this is when
Brooklyn gets really great: It takes meeting a boy at home (Domhnall Gleeson) to put in perspective how much Eilis has accomplished. She’s built herself a life in Brooklyn, through long days and lonely nights. The crux of the movie is the crossroads of coming of age: Looking in the mirror and deciding between the self you’ve grown out of and the self you’ve grown into.
(1961) Splendor In The Grass
This classic, directed by Elia Kazan, is most famous for being the first American movie to feature French kissing onscreen. Outside of the Natalie Wood-Warren Beatty lip action, though, it’s a touching story of desire, resistance, and how jarring it is to realize your parents are imperfect — and maybe even deeply flawed.
The story is set in 1920s Kansas, and Bud Stamper (Beatty) and Deanie Loomis (Wood) are in love. He’s the football hero, heir to an oil fortune; she’s a good girl, dutiful daughter to a humble grocery-owning family. There’s no way (or reason) to put it delicately: Kissing isn’t enough anymore. These high school seniors are ready to do the thing they’re taught good girls aren’t supposed to want and good boys aren’t supposed to ask for: have sex.
The central conflict is that Deanie and Bud are trapped within puritanical conventions about sexuality and womanhood that no one can explain, but that are rigidly abided by. Some of what the movie has to say about sex isn’t as potent so many decades later. But the larger questions about parents who love you but can’t listen or raise or relate to you — and how we’re tasked with loving them through it — remain.
(2009) An Education
When Jenny (Carey Mulligan) meets David, she’s a small-town girl with dreams of Oxford. She’s clever, accomplished, and bored. He’s older, curiously smooth, and fun. The pair doesn’t have a lot of natural chemistry, but the idea of the relationship is alluring, and David brings her into a world of luxury, teasing her with a trip to Paris. Jenny trades her textbooks for kitten heels. “My choice is to do something hard and boring for the rest of my life,” Jenny tells her teacher, choosing to set aside her studies, “or to go to Paris. And have fun!”
But the adult relationship requires Jenny to grow up in ways she didn’t expect. Loving David might not come saddled with Proust or Saussure, but their life together still has strings attached. As the girlish cello-playing student, Jenny saw past them. As the woman Jenny grows into, she sees through them.
Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a troubled teen climbing her way out of the disorder of her high school life. She has a problem with fighting. In school and at home, her temper is always dragging her into trouble. After spending a few moments in the boxing ring by chance, she’s hooked. The aggression is exciting, and the discipline of the sport anchors her in the midst of the chaos of her life.
It’s important that boxing is what wins Guzman’s interest. The sport is ruled by testosterone and physicality. To the men and boys who surround her, Guzman’s entrance into the boxing gym upsets their masculine power. “This is a story about a girl growing up in a macho society and, far from being threatened by its values, discovering she has a nature probably more macho than the men around her,”
wrote Roger Ebert at the time of the film’s release. “Since the movie (written, directed, and produced by women) is deeply aware of that theme, it’s always about more than boxing.”
(2015) The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
Minnie Goetze just had sex for the first time in her life. That’s not a secret — it’s one of the first lines in the movie. Her excitement is infectious as we watch her life play out and listen as she confides to her tape-recorder diary. Her commentary details the smallest, most intimate moments with a boy she likes.
The boy in question, however, is a man: Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) is the boyfriend of Minnie’s lonely, wayward mother (Kristen Wiig). Their love isn’t pure, but Skarsgård strikes a balance between creepy and coyish. We don’t realize he’s a bum until Minnie does. The movie ultimately belongs to Minnie, because every scene is anchored by Bel Powley’s performance. The camera watches her explore her sexuality without exploiting her teenage lust.
(2010) The Kids Are All Right
By the time we meet parents Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), the fractures in their family have bubbled to the surface. Only on the surface is this a movie about a family with two moms, or about what happens when an “unconventional” family opens their doors to their sperm donor. A coming-of-age story is at the root of the plot: Nic and Jules’s kids, two California teens in most respects — one headed to college, the other trying to define his life outside of “jock” and “kid brother” — are piecing together their origin story, and their entire family is growing past it.
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