Coming-of-age movies are special things. They often featuring children and adolescents as they explore one of life’s most tumultuous times. Either through a rite of passage or some incredible event, the once childish and naive character grows up a little and learns something about the world. Coming-of-age movies don’t always feature children, and they’re definitely not all family-friendly, but that’s part of what makes them great –these are films that show the many different kinds of ways someone can come of age in the world. Here are ten coming-of-age films that really spoke to us.
The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club was one of the first R-rated movies I was allowed to see. My parents thought the message was important enough for me to see it, despite some swearing and adult content. I’d be in high school soon enough, after all.
There have been quite a few films since that teach kids to accept themselves and embrace their individuality, but few do it with the flair of The Breakfast Club. Instead of feeling like an after-school special, the movie is decidedly anti-authority. The athlete, basket case, princess, brain, and criminal learn to appreciate each other and work together, in part because they all hate their parents and the authoritarian Mr. Vernon. Vernon wants them to write an essay each on who they are and why they ended up in detention, but instead all they leave him is a letter. By the end of the film, they have each learned something about themselves and one another. It’s powerful stuff. It’s also very funny and relatable.
One of the most incredible things about The Breakfast Club is that it offers new insights every time you watch it. As a preteen, I clung to the anti-establishment recklessness and thought John Bender (Judd Nelson) was so cool. In high school, I identified so strongly with Ally Sheedy’s character Allison. (Weird note: I looked just like her, too.) In college and beyond, I pick out the tiny, nuanced bits of humor and character development in place. Sure, the makeover sequence for Allison seems trite now, but the rest of the film still holds up. The film’s core idea can be summed up in one line: “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.” [Danielle Ryan]
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The phrase “coming of age” usually means awkwardness, growth, heartbreak, and learning. We all go through it, where we’re figuring out ourselves and our place in the world. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, our main character, Charlie, is searching for that sense of belonging. He thankfully finds friends and support through Sam and her step-brother Patrick, who help Charlie discover acceptance, love, and friendship.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, the movie doesn’t hold back in addressing not only what we see as the messiness of the typical teenage experience (dating, experimenting, making mistakes, etc.), but also in acceptance of mental illness and recovery from sexual abuse. Throughout the story, Charlie is not only dealing with the tribulations of the present, he’s also slowly coming to terms with the trauma of his past.
It’s a messy, imperfect world. But as the story proves, you can get through it with support in order to thrive. By the end, Charlie recognizes this: “Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there”. It’s a powerful, positive “coming of age” message that every kid needs to hear. [Bob Aquavia]
Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In definitely isn’t a traditional coming-of-age film. It’s a horror film, for starters, and it’s also a movie about vampires. However, many of the struggles that 12-year-old protagonist Oskar endures are shockingly relatable. He’s extremely meek and is the target of bullies. His father is mostly absent and ignores Oskar when a friend comes over for drinks. He’s awkward and uncomfortable and lonely. That all changes when he meets his new neighbor Eli, who looks like a girl close to Oskar’s age. Eli isn’t what she appears to be, however, and that goes well beyond the fact that Eli is a vampire.
Oskar and Eli share an unconventional relationship that allows Oskar to break out of his shell. He confronts bullies, including Eli’s pedophile roommate Håkan. Let the Right One In tackles some pretty difficult subject matter while still being a beautiful and touching coming-of-age story. The young actors portraying Oskar and Eli are fantastic, and the film’s cinematography makes the whole movie feel like a very cold, disturbing fairy tale. The American remake isn’t bad by any means, but the original is something truly special. [Danielle Ryan]
Do you want to know why Stranger Things was a smash hit? Look no further than The Sandlot. This 1993 comedy trades on the simple magic of youthful imagination. Long before the Demogorgon, we had The Beast, devourer of baseballs, slathering behind a suburban wooden fence.
The movie is a paean to the blessed interventions of friends who save us from ignorance. Scotty Smalls doesn’t know how to play baseball, but Benny teaches him. His friends also introduce him to the wonder of s’mores. As an aside, my wife, who has not seen the movie (she’s more of a Rookie of the Year fan), will frequently exclaim “you’re killing me, Smalls!” It’s got “may the Force be with you” levels of cultural capital.
The Sandlot celebrates ordinariness. It doesn’t shill the empty message that everyone can be “star athlete great,” as long as they try hard enough. We might have some individual talents, we can become passably good at most things and make a career, and that is more than enough. Though Scotty Smalls is the ostensible protagonist, the film is Benjamin “Benny the Jet” Rodriguez’s story. Like the children in the film we are spectators to his fantastic accomplishments. The thing is that his friends, though perhaps not as impressive, play as large a role in his success as his talents. There will always be people who go on to do very great things, but it’s their relationships with others that define them more than their material success. [Robert W.V. Mitchell]
Mamoru Hosoda is an anime film director who seems to specialize in coming-of-age films. From The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to his latest The Boy and the Beast, his movies are typically about young people first learning who they are. His heroes usually have some kind of fantastic outward struggle like time travel or a cyber terrorist, which is matched by an internal struggle. They need only the courage to become who they want to be. In that way, one could recommend Hosoda’s entire filmography, but I’ll focus on his 2012 film, Wolf Children.
Wolf Children is the story of a young mother, Hana, who falls in love with a werewolf and has a pair of werewolf children with him. After her lover dies, Hana must raise her children, Yuki and Ame, alone. Hana is herself only college-aged, barely more than a girl. She has all the problems of a single parent combined with having to hide her babies from the modern Japanese world. Eventually, the family moves to the countryside, where the children can grow up in safety.
In Wolf Children, Hana’s children choose very different paths. Yuki starts out as a loud angry girl but grows up into a typical teenager. Ame is quiet and reserved; he never fits into the human world, and instead follows his wolf side. Wolf Children is a beautifully-made and touching story, and the snow scene is the best single moment of any movie this decade. [Eric Fuchs]
City of God
City of God isn’t a feel-good coming-of-age story. It’s a brutal look into the favelas of Rio de Janiero, where street children are often the subjects of police bounties. The film depicts organized crime’s roots in Brazil in the 1970s and early 1980s. The “City of God” is the suburb the characters live in. It’s a place where crime is the only way to survive. There are scenes in the film that are horrific to watch, but City of God has an important story to tell.
Many of the “actors” in the film are actual kids from the favelas, trained to act by the film’s crew. They had a lot of input into how the film should be made, with a great deal of improvisation as well. City of God isn’t based directly on a true story, but there are many small truths woven into the fabric of the central drama.
Many of the film’s characters don’t get a chance to come of age, but those who survive the violence of the favelas come out on the other side scarred by their experiences. Some choose to use their hard-won life for good causes, including the protagonist, a young photographer. Others form gangs and join back into the cycle of violence. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. It’s also a fascinating portrait of a part of the world where it truly is dog-eat-dog. Or in this case, child-kill-child. The film’s lesson? It doesn’t matter where you came from, it’s where you’re going that matters. [Danielle Ryan]
Maybe you know Taika Waititi as the guy who’s directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. Or perhaps you know him as Viago, one of the vampires from the hilarious What We Do in the Shadows. But before he did either of those things, Taika Waititi made the highest-grossing film in New Zealand history. That film was Boy. Released in 2010, Boy tells the story of an 11-year-old Māori boy in 1984. He loves Michael Jackson’s Thriller and idolizes his father (Waititi, funny as ever) who is about to come home from prison.
But when his father shows up, Boy is forced to deal with a man he’s never really known. He must reckon with the fact that his father is an irresponsible and boorish man with no idea how to raise a child. Boy is an itty bitty little movie that feels beautifully true. Waititi keeps you laughing even as the drama escalates. Since its release, Boy is no longer the top grossing film in New Zealand history. As of this year, a movie called Hunt for the Wilderpeople occupies that top spot. And as luck would have it, it’s another coming-of-age tale about a Māori boy. Who directed it? Taika Waititi, of course. Both films are wonderful, but Boy is a great place to start with Waititi’s filmography. And it’s available to watch on Netflix (US) right now. [Travis Newton]
Much like Boy, Whale Rider is a coming-of-age drama about a Māori adolescent. Whale Rider‘s protagonist, however, is a 12-year-old girl who wants to become chief of her tribe despite tradition only allowing male chiefs. Pai’s grandfather, the current chief, has a close relationship with her but repeatedly denies her interest in leadership. He becomes furious when she learns how to fight using a traditional fighting stick, taught by an uncle. Pai refuses to let her dream die. At one point she considers leaving and going to live with her father in Germany, but she can’t bear to be away from the sea for so long. She continues learning how to be a chief in secret, determined to lead the tribe one day.
When the film was released in 2002, Keisha Castle-Hughes, who portrayed Pai, became the youngest person ever nominated for an Academy Award. (Ten years later, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis took that distinction.) Castle-Hughes is a force of nature in the film. She’s enchanting, and her eventual rise to greatness feels like a natural progression. This is a great coming-of-age film for anyone, but especially for girls who were told they couldn’t do something because of their gender. [Danielle Ryan]
Trainspotting is way more than a drug movie. Irvine Welsh’s tale of hooligans and heroin dives deep into themes that range from angst to desire to addiction and more. In a way, Trainspotting is just as much a coming-of-age story for its lead character Renton as it is a story of dissatisfied outcasts yearning for a fix.
Mark Renton is scum and so are his friends. Each of the core characters in the film and novel have their own story arcs, but Mark is the only member of the group to truly find himself in the end. The final realization that he has while walking away from everything is a self-realization of true purpose.
The “Choose Life” monologue Renton says has become iconic for fans of the film despite often being misinterpreted. What Rents is saying is his mantra taken partly from the influence of Sick Boy. As he leaves with the stolen drug money, his path is clear and the world around him is in full focus. Renton may be a thief and junkie, but at the end of Trainspotting, he knows exactly who he is and what lies ahead. [Andrew Hawkins]
Saved! examines what it’s like to lose your faith during adolescence. By exploring the lives of its characters, Saved! deals with religion, homophobia, teen pregnancy, divorce, and disabilities. The movie’s central protagonist, Mary, is a senior at a private Christian high school. Over the summer, her boyfriend reveals to her that he’s gay. In an attempt to “save” him, she has sex with him, thinking it might make him straight. Instead, she gets pregnant and he gets shipped off to a gay conversion camp. She begins losing her faith, but in the process gains two new friends. One is her former friend Hilary’s brother, who is in a wheelchair, and the other is the only Jewish girl at the high school. Together, the three of them figure out a lot about faith, life, and growing up.
Saved! is great because it’s not only funny, but it has a number of good messages. Even the “mean girl”, Hilary, has some good in her. The film examines why people behave the way they do, and how religion can sometimes play into that. More than anything, Saved! is a movie about facing your insecurities. It has a saccharine ending where everything ends up okay, but that tends to be the case for (most) coming-of-age films. The characters are well-developed and the script is witty, plus viewers get to see pop star Mandy Moore crash her minivan into a giant cross. [Danielle Ryan]