An overview of the coming-of-age genre’s most thoughtful films.
Whether you’re being exposed to stark realities of adult life, awkwardly yearning for romantic affection, or cringing at your humiliating screw-ups, adolescence presents its own unique set of challenges, anxieties, and joys. During these formative teenage years, our developing brains are fixed to experience positive feelings — and agonies — more severely than our early childhood or adult brains. According to psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, “nothing — whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music — will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.” Because of the sheer thrill and intensity of adolescence, looking back on your profound, terrifying, and embarrassing memories as a 14 or 22-year-old can be great to revel in, which underlines the enduring appeal of the coming-of-age film.
Though the genre is stifled with cliches and trite narratives, the directors, screenwriters, and actors of the most successful coming-of-age films understand that the awkwardness of adolescence is more complex than acne, puberty, prom, and trying to get into a good college. When we grow up, we cement our values and interests, decide who is worth listening to, and attempt to figure out what we want and who we are are. The best coming-of-age films manifest these internal dilemmas with a sympathetic, convincing protagonist who tackles both mundane (a conversation with someone, finding a job) and exciting (a first love, rebellion against authority figure) scenarios.
These compassionate films can sincerely validate the experiences of its younger viewers, who may need movies to feel less isolated during the fragile, sometimes dissatisfying years of their lives. For older viewers, the issues explored in coming-of-age stories can provoke a deep nostalgia or a more nuanced re-examination of their own adolescence.
Summer, in particular, has been a wonderful backdrop for many great coming-of-age films centering on post-grad identity crises, family vacations, and the general aimlessness of teendom. Because the bug bites, sunburns, and brutal heat of summer have finally arrived with a vengeance, we have compiled seven summer coming-of-age films that capture the strife and thrill of adolescent years.
Directed By: Greg Mottola
The Scoop: In the summer of 1987, recent college graduate James Brennan’s (Jesse Eisenberg) grad school and summer plans become scuppered, which forces him to work a dead-end job at a tawdry, dispirited local amusement. On his first day, James cleans up puke and is nearly knifed over a giant plush panda — his summer seems like a big, treacherous waste. But there’s hope: James meets the unhappy but intriguing Em (a wonderful Kristen Stewart) and falls in love.
Why Watch? With its basic premise, Adventureland perfectly captures the near-universal feeling of stagnancy when everybody else seems to move forward with their lives. James should be touring Europe with his other would-be intellectual pals before studying journalism at Columbia in the fall, but he’s instead stuck at a lousy job amidst severe suburban ennui. The film aptly conveys how this seemingly purposelessness path can lead to another type of fulfillment: the exciting minutiae of dating. Eisenberg and Stewart generate an infectious chemistry, and their scenes together are lovely and tender, from their stoned bumper car adventures (set to The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”) to their tip-toeing discussion about James’s virginity. The details of the film are also admirably rendered — the energetic, nostalgic soundtrack comprises of the best (The Replacements, Husker Du, Lou Reed) and worst (Falco, Whitesnake) music of the 80s. The film’s more loud-out-loud moments — James awkwardly covering his boners with pillows and towels, Joel making out with a co-worker and offering her a copy of Gogol’s melancholy and banal stories the following day — still feel grounded, in large part due to Mottola’s direction, which evokes the idiosyncrasies of his characters and their trivial, absurd experiences.
Stand By Me (1986)
Directed By: Rob Reiner
The Scoop: Based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” Stand By Me features an inseparable quartet of twelve-year-old boys: the natural leader Chris (River Phoenix), intellectual Gordie (Wil Wheaton), risk-taker Teddy (Corey Feldman), and goofball Vern (Jerry O’Connell). The boys venture off into the woods to find a dead boy and be deemed local heroes thereafter. Along the way, they contemplate their personal anxieties, express uncertainties about the future, test the bounds of friendship, and confront the unfair pressures imposed on them by the adult world.
Why Watch? As one of the most heartfelt and famous coming-of-age-films of all time, Stand By Me masterfully tackles the painful process of growing up. The film treats the legitimate fears, home lives, and dispositions of its young protagonists with an unparalleled emotional depth. These children discover how cruel and unjust the world can be, but the film balances its cynical tone with the boys’ frequent and amusing exchange of dirty jokes and juvenile banter. Gordie’s famous and nostalgic observation — “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” — is one of the bigger gut-punches in the coming-of-age genre.
Summer Interlude (1951)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
The Scoop: Maj-Britt Nilsson stars as Marie, a professional ballet dancer who reflects on her devastating affair with the shy and handsome Henrik during a summer on the rocky shores of Sweden’s archipelagos.
Why Watch? Most people probably don’t think of Ingmar Bergman as a “sunny” filmmaker, with the themes of despair, the doomed past, and future, and isolation dominating his filmography. Surprisingly, Bergman produced a number of summertime films in the 1950s: the witty Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the tender and laid-back Summer With Monika (1953), and finally, the heartbreaking serenity of Summer Interlude. The film’s interplay between the past and present is wonderful: time has passed rapidly for Maria, who insists on solitude and has trouble reconciling her age and maintaining successful relationships since her summer with Henrik. The Marie and Henrik scenes are wonderful — they spend much of their carefree relationship relaxing, chatting, swimming, or cuddling with Henrik’s dog, yet the film never feels arduous. Between the two charming leads, Bergman’s elegant direction, Summer Interlude offers a bleak and overlooked entry into the coming-of-age genre.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Directed By: Richard Linklater
The Scoop: Dazed and Confused follows the mayhem of various rising ninth graders and seniors on the last day of school in 1976. The incoming freshman attempt to fit in with older kids, meet girls and avoid sadistic hazing from the belligerent bone-head Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) and other soon-to-be seniors. Meanwhile, the bored and rowdy seniors lament about the hopelessness of their futures, drink beer, and wait for something exciting to happen.
Why Watch? On its surface, Dazed and Confused is a funny, breezy evocation of adolescence and an immersive documentation of a cultural moment, from its 70s arena rock soundtrack to the characters’ groovy, iconic outfits. Despite its appeal as a classic stoner movie, Dazed and Confused also shines as a secretly melancholy film about the perils of growing up and nostalgia. Most characters either ardently ache for another era or struggle with reconciling the passage of time. Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson — the classic older sleaze who still hangs around high schoolers — joyously declares, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older. They stay the same age.” Near the climax of the movie, the good-natured quarterback Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd (Jason London) laments, “If I start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.” One girl (Marissa Ribisi) similarly expresses her frustration with the 1970s and posits the “every other decade” theory: “The ‘50s were boring, the ‘60s rocked, the ‘70s obviously suck. Maybe the ‘80s will be radical.” The film reflects the common tendency for teenagers to disdain their own era, all the while idealizing the one they just missed. Regardless of what’s playing on the radio or if flared jeans are in style, most teens are convinced they have it bad, yet most of them undergo similar predicaments: aimlessness, struggling to find like-minded people, and an ambivalent attitude about high school.
Breaking Away (1979)
Directed By: Peter Yates
The Scoop: In Bloomington, Indiana,Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) are each working-class high school grads — derogatorily called “cutters” by the affluent Indian University students — who decide to spend an unmotivated summer together before confronting the inevitable responsibilities of finding a job or college. As a lover of Italian opera and culture, Dave still has the grand ambition of becoming a renowned Italian bicycle racer and masquerades himself as an Italian exchange student in an attempt to win over his crush, a college student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass).
Why Watch? Breaking Away is truly a lost classic of the 1970s, even with its less than promising premise. While it may be misleading to classify the film as a “feel-good” movie due to negative connotations surrounding the genre, Breaking Away excels as a “feel-good” movie because it is simply a joy to watch, with its wonderfully constructed script, talented cast, scenic cinematography, and lovably flawed characters. Even though the film undeniably has a goofy and lighthearted tone, it thoughtfully explores plenty of serious themes like class conflict, pride, identity crises, and love. It’s a rare coming-of-age film, one worthy of more modern recognition.
Ghost World (2001)
Directed By: Terry Zwigoff
The Scoop: Two ultra-hip best friends, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), just graduated from college without any well-thought-out plans for their futures. After the devious duo responds to a pitiful newspaper ad for a date, they begin an ironic relationship with a cranky and jaded outsider, Seymour (Steve Buscemi). However, Enid finds herself drawn to Seymour’s honesty, obsession with rare 78rpm records, and unapologetic loneliness; the two lonely souls become friends, and their lives slowly fall apart.
Why Watch? Beginning with its glorious title sequence, Ghost World showcases the disconnect between Enid and her surroundings. Enid prides herself on being different from everyone else: she sports a “1977 original punk rock lock,” refuses to replace the boredom of post-high school life with any sort of excitement or momentum, detests all of the “extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers,” and gets fired on her first day of work at a movie theater. While Enid’s attitude and perpetual disgust aren’t necessarily excusable, her drab, unnamed suburbia is motionless and full of creeps: it’s no wonder why she is so aimless and lonely. The one place she could excel is her summer art class, whose instructor, unfortunately, praises art like this. We are happy to see Enid and Seymour find solace in each other, even though they simply feed off each other’s unhappiness. Ultimately, as one of the more mature coming-of-age films, Ghost World both criticizes and understands self-imposed outsiders like Enid, resulting in a deeply empathetic meditation on loneliness, feeling trapped, and the sociology of taste. Plus, there’s Doug.
American Graffiti (1973)
Directed By: George Lucas
The Scoop: On the last night of the summer of 1962, recent high school grads spend a night contemplating their futures, hanging at Mel’s Drive-In, and cruising around their small Southern California town while an enigmatic DJ, Wolfman Jack, spins classic rock n’ roll tunes.
Why Watch? While the above films tackle bleak themes like the pains of growing up, loneliness, and anxiety, the nostalgic American Graffiti is a snapshot of a seemingly idyllic America not yet corrupted by the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and all the other mayhem of the 1960s. In a glowing review for the film, Roger Ebert claims, “American Graffiti is not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.” Ebert praises Lucas’ skill in both pandering to nostalgia and chronicling a point in American history, which feels almost eerily detached from a 2018 viewing perspective. The film mainly achieves its convincing 1962 feel with wonderful photography, breathless editing, an episodic structure, and the famous, impressionistic soundtrack, which is suffused with incredible pop songs, from Buddy Holly to The Platters. American Graffiti is one of the most audio-dependent films ever made, and the soundtrack serves as the backbone for the entire film — whose script rapidly interweaves from plotline to plotline. While the film certainly has some lackluster storylines and characters, American Graffiti remains a tender, lighthearted centerpiece of the coming-of-age genre. Bonus points for Harrison Ford’s first major film credit!
After you binge all seven films, check out some other noteworthy summer coming-of-age flicks: Call Me By Your Name (2017), Summercamp! (2006), and Summer with Monika (1953). Happy viewing!