Coming-of-age movies are, arguably, one of the best genres in film. They’ve consistently been audience favourites, box office successes, and award winners. Whether it’s the awkward phase of puberty or the moment you finally leave home to find your own way in the world, adolescence is messy and fraught with emotion—which is probably what makes it so appealing to filmmakers and actors. Additionally, in fiction, the most important story is the coming-of-age story. Everyone can relate to their experience of growing up and being confronted with difficult situations at a young age. Because of this, coming-of-age stories hold a unique place in the realm of storytelling: broad enough to relate, yet specific enough to learn a fresh point-of-view.
The coming-of-age story generally features a young character, typically a teenager, who is confronted by a mature conflict. The youth feels isolated, alone, and feels like no one understands them. They might feel detached from their home or school life, and go on a quest of self-discovery through this obstacle. The protagonist eventually discovers who exactly they are and makes the mental leap from child to adult.
Despite how simple the formula makes it seem, making a good coming-of-age movie can be a challenge. Whether it be an overuse of cliches or just bad writing, certain movies miss the mark. Some common cliches in coming-of-age stories include:
- The protagonist is the smartest person in the room.
- The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”: a static character who has eccentric personality quirks and is unabashedly girlish. Typically serves as the romantic interest for a male protagonist.
- The backstabbing best friend.
- The parent who doesn’t “get” the protagonist, but later comes around because they love them.
- Sudden Key Information: where the protagonist suddenly learns they have unique abilities, or are given a powerful weapon, or learn about their mysterious past, etc…
These cliches, when used, make it difficult to keep the audience’s attention because they make the movie predictable, which results in a loss of interest. And when they’re paired with bad writing, they instantly produce a bad film. We watch these coming-of-age movies for a simple reason: they’re relatable. We know being a teenager sucks. Because of this, we’re able to connect to the characters we see on screen and we empathise with them. When a writer overuses cliches, it messes with the connection between viewer and media and makes the characters unrealistic—essentially, it takes away from the relatability aspect.
So, what makes a good coming-of-age movie? A good protagonist. The story can narrate the growth of a single person or a group of friends, but their journey has to connect with the audience. Though depicting an immature character and some of their bad decisions and reactions may momentarily unsettle your audience, it’s absolutely necessary to genuinely show an imperfect character on a journey to becoming a better person, because nobody is perfect. Furthermore, avoid thinking that you need a big, dramatic event to kickstart the events of the movie. Some of the best coming-of-age movies are plainly, almost blandly, normal. Take, for example, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Set in Sacramento, California, the film follows the character Lady Bird through her last year of high school and her transition into her first year of college. There’s no overblown conflict, no dramatic event that happens—just Lady Bird’s high school experiences and a complex mother-daughter relationship.
Now that we know why coming-of-age movies are important and what goes into creating a good one, here are the films you need to watch:
Spirited Away (2001), dir. Hayao Miyazaki
“Once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return.”
As Bong Joon-Ho once said: “Once you get over the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film follows 10-year-old Chihiro and her family. While moving to a new neighbourhood, they enter the world of Kami. After her parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro must find a way to free herself and her parents and return to the human world. Empire Magazine’s Patrick Peters calls it a “captivating fantasy that sets a new benchmark for animation”, and I’m inclined to agree. Miyazaki creates a spectacular world and makes you feel like you’re progressing with the character through the film. In addition to a fantastic plotline, the animation is beautiful as well — Spirited Away is a must watch for everyone.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012), dir. Wes Anderson
“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Wes Anderson’s recognisable style shines through in Moonrise Kingdom, and it will take your breath away. Set in the fictional New England island of New Penzance, this film follows the story of an orphan boy who escapes from a scouting camp to unite with his pen pal and love interest, a girl with aggressive tendencies. Feeling alienated, they run away together. Anderson’s candy-coloured, retro-tinted pops of nostalgia will keep your eyes glued to the screen—“he draws you into his fantastical worlds with beauty and humour, and while their artifice can keep you at somewhat of a distance, this only deepens the story’s emotional power” (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times). The simple, poignant storyline truly tells the power of young love: sudden as a storm that sweeps through an island, unstoppable as lightning, and overall triumphant despite efforts to stop it.
Boyhood (2014), dir. Richard Linklater
“I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not.”
Richard Linklater stated that he had “long wanted to tell the story of a parent–child relationship that follows a boy from the first through the 12th grade and ends with him going off to college. But the dilemma is that kids change so much that it is impossible to cover that much ground.” The solution? Filming over the course of 12 years, from 2001 to 2013, Boyhood follows both the main character (Mason Evans Jr.) and Ellar Coltrane (who plays Mason) as they grow older. This film’s beauty lies in its simplicity and, as stated by Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers, it’s “deceptively simple premise” — it shows how life can be at times and how one’s thoughts and passions change as time flies by. It’s beautifully intimate in its narrative scope.
Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins
“I cry so much, sometimes I feel like Imma just turn into drops.”
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a masterpiece. Inspired by the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film presents three stages in the life of Chiron, the main character: his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, exploring the difficulties he faces with his identity and sexuality, as well as the abuse he endures growing up. It “demands to be seen, even though the film is about a man who desperately wants to keep the audience at arm’s length” (David Sims, The Atlantic). Featuring stunning performances from Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland and Naomie Harris, Moonlight presents a heartbreaking yet captivating story through strikingly beautiful cinematography.
Lady Bird (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig
“I wish I could live through something.”
Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut stars Saoirse Ronan as high-school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Set in Sacramento, California, between the fall of 2002 and summer of 2003, the film follows Lady Bird through the ups and downs in her relationships during her senior year of high school. Though it follows a similar archetype of a coming-of-age story, it’s one of the most well-done of its kind. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalf (who plays Lady Bird’s mother) have great chemistry and their complicated relationship is what makes the movie so great. Gerwig’s writing is fantastic and every scene, every line is flawless and eminently quotable—“Lady Bird is a triumph of style, sensibility and spirit” (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post). Definitely a must-watch.
Little Women (2019), dir. Greta Gerwig
“I intend to make my own way in the world.”
Through Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the 6th movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, it’s arguably the best adaptation. As stated by ScreenRant critic Molly Freeman, “Gerwig’s Little Women weaves a stunningly heartfelt and achingly honest coming-of-age story with excellent performances from its entire cast”. Featuring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and Emma Watson as the March sisters, Little Women chronicles the lives of the sisters in Concord, Massachusetts during the 19th century. Every one in a while, you’ll stumble across a film that makes you feel every possible emotion during its runtime. You’ll catch yourself with a stupid grin on your face, but starting to cry in the very next moment. Little Women is that film. It’s incredibly well cast, and filled with beautiful cinematography and great characters. I guarantee that everyone will be able to relate to these characters in one way or another, and for that, it’s a film that everyone should watch at least once.
While there is nothing wrong with tropes, per se, and there are definitely more ‘formulaic’ coming-of-age movies that are very successful and enjoyed by many viewers, each of the films highlighted in this article have a sense of uniqueness that provides the viewer with a breath of fresh air—and for that, they are truly exceptional.