They say the easiest way to make your first feature is to do a horror movie. They’re cheap and have an enormous audience, and even if you don’t hit big with it, there’s a chance for either a cult following or even just the benefit of having something under your belt, to show producers when developing your next project. What kind of movie is best to do second? It’s not scientific, but I have a theory that the coming-of-age genre is a good place to go for a follow-up. Maybe it doesn’t have to be your sophomore feature, but somewhere early on you can do well to come of age yourself, as a filmmaker, by delivering a story of kids or teens growing up.
The career that inspired this idea is Peter Jackson’s. He was doing okay with his splatter films and R-rated puppets before directing Heavenly Creatures, but that’s the one where he suddenly displayed great maturity as a filmmaker, and it’s the one that put him on the map critically and internationally. The movie, which turns 20 today (if born at its debut at the Venice Film Festival), was more a passion project for Jackson’s partner, Fran Walsh, which makes sense – it usually takes a woman to help us boys grow up. It also remains Jackson’s best movie yet, which is probably something to discuss for another time. For now, I thought we could see what other directors broke out best with a coming-of-age movie.
First of all, there are some filmmakers who made classics of the genre right out of the gate, and they obviously emerged on the scene with those movies. Francois Truffaut had The 400 Blows (which I think remained his best film, too), Satyajit Ray had Pather Panchali (maybe his best, though his follow-up, also coming-of-age movie, Aparajito, is close), Sofia Coppola had The Virgin Suicides (which isn’t her best), John Hughes had Sixteen Candles (though he’d written stuff like Mr. Mom and Vacation), Stephen Daldry had Billy Elliot, Richard Ayoade had Submarine and David M. Evans had The Sandlot. Not that anybody really knows Evans by name.
Rob Reiner arrived in the director’s club as a TV comedy actor, so he had something to prove. And he was quite successful doing so with his silly mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (which is still the standard of that genre) and his surprisingly mature college movie rom-com The Sure Thing. But it still took his third outing, Stand By Me (also a standard for its genre), for him to show us real depth and receive real notoriety on the other side of the camera. Same thing for fellow TV star Penny Marshall, who let us forget about Jumpin’ Jack Flash by helming the fantastical coming-of-age comedy Big.
Peter Bogdanovich worked for Roger Corman, directing the sci-fi B-movie Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (under an alias) and the much more interesting thriller Targets, and then found his greatest success (also ever) with The Last Picture Show. Todd Solondz had a slightly generic indie comedy (Fear, Anxiety & Depression) for his debut before striking gold with Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Wes Anderson hadn’t totally found his footing with Bottle Rocket, a movie some might consider his “Pablo Honey” given that it’s not entirely indicative of his now-signature style, unlike the follow-up, Rushmore. His friend and occasional collaborator Noah Baumbach also found victory with the genre, rising mostly off of The Squid and the Whale, his fourth feature (he’d previously disowned his third).
Also in the bunch who received their biggest boost with a coming-of age movie are Richard Linklater with Dazed and Confused, Robert Zemeckis with Back to the Future, Robert Mulligan with To Kill a Mockingbird, Lone Scherfig with An Education, Alfonso Cuaron with the dissimilar double-shot of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, James Ponsoldt with The Spectacular Now, Greg Mottola with Superbad, Lee Daniels with Precious, George Lucas with American Graffiti, Ken Loach with Kes, Emile Ardolino with Dirty Dancing, Niki Caro with Whale Rider, Shane Meadows with This is England and Jason Reitman with Juno.
Again, this isn’t a proper study of all coming-of-age movies (a genre that’s too loosley defined by many people) and the careers of their directors, so now is your time to rebut my observation by noting how many coming-of-age movies are the worst title on their respective filmmaker’s resume or how many directors have been just fine without need of making a coming-of-age movie. But I’m not suggesting this is a hard and fast rule, just that maybe there are good odds for a filmmaker in need of breaking out to attempt so with an entry into this genre.