With sometimes painful, often funny but always moving stories that can define different experiences of adolescence, the coming-of-age genre never loses its power. Here are 20 movies you need to watch for the first time – or all over again.
When lockdown first struck, there were two types of people: those who found comfort in dystopian horror movies and those who preferred taking a trip down memory lane via the medium of teen movies, particularly those with a coming of age narrative.
Decades after their release, movies like Clueless, Pretty in Pink, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Breakfast Club have long been our vice in hard times. Whether you're sad, anxious, lonely or all of the above, there's a sweet comfort in adolescent adventures, high school horror stories, crushing crushes and perfect prom nights.
1. Lady Bird
Lady Bird's Christine is an unusual character because she doesn't fit into any of the high-school "types" most movies focus on. She's not exactly cool, she's not an overachieving nerd, and she may be rebellious but it doesn't get her anywhere. In that way, her messy, dramatic high school experience hits a lot closer to home than a lot of the Hollywood shined-up versions.
There's no denying the bittersweet nostalgia that accompanies coming-of-age movies — and Booksmart is no exception. A stellar unfiltered high school comedy filled with witty dialogue, Booksmart follows academic overachievers, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), as they show the world that they can be smart and fun. Having spent their high school careers toiling away in the library to get accepted into prestigious colleges, their understanding of the world is soon shattered when they learn that their less studious, partying classmates got accepted into the same big-name universities. And so, on the eve of graduation, Molly and Amy decide to cram everything they missed into one, unforgettable night.
3. How To Build A Girl
How To Build A Girl – based on Caitlin Moran’s hit novel of the same name – introduces us to Johanna Morrigan, a young Wolverhampton local who’s struggling to get to grips with the “incredible unfolding” that comes with puberty. We see her figure out what to call her vagina (think “slang names, pet names, made-up names”), teach herself about masturbation, battle her raging hormones and navigate all the usual issues that come with being a teenage girl. Desperate to get out of her home town and make a name for herself, she eventually moves to London, where she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a fast-talking lady sex-adventurer and music critic. Gaining notoriety as an enfant terrible, she has finally figured out how to build a girl – but is this the girl she wanted to build?
4. The Florida Project
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a run-down motel outside of Disney World. As she goes on adventures with other motel kids, Halley struggles to make ends meet. After all, Halley is practically a kid herself. But given her circumstances, Halley has to grow up. And by the movie's end, Moonee is almost definitely forced to grow up more quickly than most six-year-olds.
5. Call Me By Your Name
Few films have succeeded in capturing the thrill of first love with the same gusto as Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. Set in the summer of 1983, Timothée Chalamet (in the role that catapulted him to super-stardom) plays 17-year-old Elio, who is staying in his family’s villa in northern Italy. When Oliver (Armie Hammer), a doctoral student interning for Elio’s father, arrives on the scene, the pieces for infatuation, friendship and heartbreak fall into place.
Moonlight is a masterpiece of emotional filmmaking. Every aspect of this movie, from its careful use of colour grading, lingering camera shots, and excellent music, evokes lead character Chiron’s relatable feelings as he matures into a world designed to reject him. The soulful performances from all three Chirons (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) shine through despite the character being a man (and boy) of few words, and Moonlight excels at letting the audience feel the character’s progress in the wordless spaces occupied by long close-ups and intentional silence. Moonlight examines Black masculinity and queerness with a loving, compassionate lens — a feat few movies manage to achieve with such a highly recognised level of success.
7. Little Women
Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women was first published in 1868, and it lent a new meaning to feminism, female empowerment, and sisterhood. Little Women is the coming-of-age tale of four sisters who lived in a pitiful condition in their New England home during the Civil War. It was seen differently from the 19th-century literature targetted towards females. The novel created ripples in publishing and later in the entertainment industry. Alcott probably didn't expect to start a media empire when she wrote Little Women but ever since the novel was first published, the classic coming-of-age story has been adapted countless times – but never like the most recent movie. In her sweeping adaptation, writer and director Greta Gerwig cleverly modified the original ending, paying homage to the fate Alcott envisioned for Jo but couldn't write herself. The movie's credits reads like a parade of A-Listers. Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen, and Florence Pugh are the new March sisters. Laura Dern plays a big-hearted Marmee, always amused by her girls; as the stern Aunt March, Meryl Streep never is amused. Finally, as Laurie, Timothée Chalamet might just edge out Christian Bale (debate freely after seeing the film).
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. 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 film is about the slow churn of self-discovery and the patience that it requires.
9. Blinded By The Light
One of the most important ingredients in a great teen movie is a killer soundtrack – and Gurinder Chadha's Bruce Springsteen-centric coming-of-age story certainly has one. But the wrinkle here is that The Boss wasn't that cool to mid-'80s kids ("He's more what your dad listens to!"), making Pakistani-British teen Javed (Viveik Kalra) even more of an outsider in the age of synth-pop. Javed's goals are classic teen movie stuff: become a writer, kiss a girl, and prove he was born to run by getting out of Luton.
This Dia de los Muertos-inspired movie from the giants at Disney/Pixar was one of the most ambitious and singular projects the mega studio have delivered in the last decade, and at its heart was a story that you’d have to be dead inside to not shed a tear over. Set in Santa Cecilia, Mexico, Coco follows a 12-year-old boy whose great ambitions to become his country’s next musical megastar are crushed by his parents’ ban on singing and playing guitar in the house. Keen to break free and prove them wrong, he sneaks into his late great-great-grandfather’s tomb (dark, we know) and gets his hands on the guitar that supposedly propelled him to fame as a world-famous singer. One chord later, he’s being dragged into the afterlife to find its owner, who he hopes will give him all the answers to his problems. It may seem like a sweet kids’ movie, but Coco harbours some real-life lessons about listening to those who have wisdom and hindsight and learning to let go of people we love.
Clueless reimagines Jane Austen’s Emma as though it was, like, totally transposed to Beverly Hills. Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, a popular, spoiled teen who takes new student Tai under her wing, giving her a makeover only to find herself later rejected. Aesthetically, Clueless is up there with the greats, with outfits still being recreated today and hilarious technology. But, like Cher, there’s more to this film than meets the eye and the sharp script and zingy one-liners keep it feeling fresh today.
13. Ferris Beuller's Day Off
If there's a coming of age movie which best sums up teenagers' defiance of authority figures then Ferris Bueller's Day Off is without a doubt a contender - Bueller's (Matthew Broderick) breaking of the fourth wall as he explains to the audience his motivation and book of tricks for avoiding his family and teachers as he skips school is a stroke of genius which makes you feel complicit in his exploits, cheering him on from the comfort of our seats. We've already seen how John Hughes helped to define the 80s and the coming of age genre with The Breakfast Club, but Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a progression of the genre to a whole new level.
14. 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.
15. Stand By Me
Four best friends head out into the woods, away from adults — is there a better template for a coming-of-age film? Stand By Me, based on a novella written by Stephen King, is equal parts suspenseful and bittersweet.
16. Bend It Like Beckham
It’s the ultimate underdog story about an underdog story. Bend It Like Beckham follows a British-Indian girl named Jess (Parminder Nagra) as she struggles to reconcile her love of football with her love for her traditional immigrant family. Along the way, she befriends her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley), strikes up a relationship with her hot coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and learns a little bit about herself. Not only did the film become a feel-good global smash and launch Knightley to stardom, but it stands as a coming of age classic.
17. Pretty in Pink
The original cult coming-of-age movie stars a young Molly Ringwald as Andie, the arty outsider caught in an unlikely love triangle. It’s as much an ode to girl power as it is a tale of unrequited love and high-school high drama. In the end, Andie steps out of the shadows of a love-interest object and into centre stage in her own life.
18. An Education
Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s biography, An Education tells the story of Jenny (a baby-faced Carey Mulligan) she’s a small-town girl with dreams of Oxford. She’s clever, accomplished, and bored. But then along comes David. He’s older, curiously smooth, and fun. He woos her with jaunts to a jazz club and escapades to Paris. But when Jenny loses her place at Oxford and uncovers David’s double life, the life lessons are an education in their own right.
19. Perks Of Being A Wallflower
The Perks of Being a Wallflower eschews years of quirky indie flick formula, delivering one of the most soulfully honest, charming and impeccably acted coming-of-age films in years. It has all the watch-ability of the genre's more lighthearted fare while it also tackles topics and emotions such as depression, anxiety, death, grief, suicide, and abuse in a way that feels open, honest, and judgment-free. For all the darkness, it nails the teen rites of passage – the drama of school dances, unrequited romance and the mind-blowing experience of hearing David Bowie's 'Heroes' for the first time.
20. Rebel Without A Cause
Rebel Without a Cause is a firm classic, James Dean’s most celebrated film (next to his Oscar-nominated performance in East of Eden) and possibly the first of it's genre. The film, directed and written by Nicholas Ray, is an adaptation of psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. Jim Stark, a rebellious kid with a troubled past, moves to a new town, making both friends and enemies. Never before had a film managed to capture the confusion of teenagers, and consequently, James Dean became a cultural icon.
Main image by Netflix