Cinematary Canon #2: Best Coming-of-Age Movies
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Lydia Creech, Ben Shull, Jessica Alice Carr, and John McAmis
NOTE: The films listed are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
Zero for Conduct (1933) by Jean Vigo
This film clocks in at 47 minutes, making it the only short film in this list, but Jean Vigo’s intense directorial vision captures more life than most features will ever hope to achieve (yes, you read that right). Vigo, an innovative director who was taken from French Cinema way too soon, passed away at the age of 29 in Paris, 1934. His small filmography, three short films and one feature, fits on one Criterion Collection disc (I wholly recommend buying this); however, Vigo’s influence reaches well into the New Wave, ensnaring the minds of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, and many others.
Zero for Conduct, in many ways, does not confine itself to a genre. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it has scenes of action and heart. Though nebulous in genre, it’s very grounded in themes. This film captures the love/hate relationship of the school that every pupil endures, then it indulges in the fantasy every student dreams about: an overthrow of the regime. A group of school boys, sick and tired of the manipulative, oppressive, and maybe too affectionate professors (looking at you, Surveillant Pète-Sec), decide to take their education into their own hands. Anarchy, rebellion, drastic changes in thought processes — these are coming-of-age themes in cinema, and they have their beginnings in Zero for Conduct.
Vigo directs a realistic, yet highly imaginative, picture of life in a boarding school. The anarchic natures upon which the students act is a turning point in their lives — their questioning of the establishment is a grand example of higher thought, and one of the most important aspects about becoming an adult. - John McAmis
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) by Amy Heckerling
“No shirt, no shoes…no dice!!!
I like this movie way too much. I don’t believe any other film quite captures the arrogance, awkwardness, and sexual tragedy of high school quite as hysterically as this film. Yet another ensemble performance piece, the story follows a group of high school students just trying to make it through their jobs at All-American Burger or helping a co-ed remember why Cheap Trick tickets are worth the money (“The dream police-da na na na na na na!”).
The film is an adaption of former Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe’s eponymous book. Crowe, who was 24 at the time, attended a high school in California undercover as means of getting material. Don’t even get me started on the soundtrack: Don Henley (as well as nearly every other Eagles member), The Go-Gos, Jackson Browne, Sammy Hagar, the list goes on. It’s stellar. Rumor has it that when it was first released on VHS and Betamax in video stores, the film would play fine until it reached the famous Phoebe Cates pool scene.
The picture would get grainy and scattered, almost to the point of unrecognizability, because the tape had been rewound so many times at the end of the scene. Hell, it’s in the National Film Registry. Not even Congress can keep from the rewind button. - Ben Shull
Labyrinth (1986) by Jim Henson
I nominate Labyrinth to Cinematary’s Canon of Best Coming of Age Films because I think it could stand a little weirdness. I saw Labyrinth for the first time right after high school, and I was immediately impressed with the puppetry and set design and costumes (mygod, the masquerade sequence) and, yes, Bowie. More than all that, however, Labyrinth works as coming of age tale that shows fantasy can be a realm for girls, too, which I think is so important.
The more I come back to Labyrinth, the more I appreciate the way it foregrounds its messages of selflessness and agency even if world isn’t fair (It’s part of growing up!). And, even if you don’t care about that, there’s plenty of campy fun and attention to detail to delight audiences. - Lydia Creech
Most Coming of Age Moment: “You have no power over me!”
Stand by Me (1986) by Rob Reiner
Perhaps the most sincere film about friendship, particularly amongst young males. Based on a Stephen King novella, the narrative follows four best friends as they venture out into the wilderness in search of a body. A boy their age has been hit and killed by a train and the boys see this as an opportunity to become famous in their little town. Throughout their journey, Reiner masterfully captures the essence of budding masculinity.
Amidst the backdrop of an alcoholic father, bullying, a grieving family, and separation anxiety, the boys subconsciously overlook these with the textbook pubescent agenda: nonsensical swearing and fleeting bouts of machismo. These things seem so natural, which pairs well with the fact that they are walking on train tracks in the middle of the woods for most of the film. These elements blend together beautifully within a framed narrative as written by one Richard Dreyfuss. - Ben Shull
Kiki's Delivery Service (1986) by Hayao Miyazaki
The beauty of Kiki’s Delivery Service is in the small moments.
Director Hayao Miyazaki has a knack for making the subtle moments the most meaningful, and it is done to masterful lengths in this film. Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who decides to leave home on the spur of the moment when she hears it is the perfect night to fly.
It is so easy to be idealistic when you are young, and even now I struggle to fight off the urges to return to that way of thinking. Kiki has the idea of maturity in her head, which is why getting to that point sooner rather than later is so appealing to her. She could wait a few more weeks — like they decided — and fly off then, but tonight is perfect and she has to.
Once she leaves, she is introduced to the challenges of the world. She is forced to sleep on a train due to poor weather, she runs into a snotty witch, she almost causes a traffic accident and runs from a cop, she can’t find a place to stay, and people stare at her like some caged creature due to her powers.
Miyazaki presents the moments of growing up that we all know in mystical terms in Kiki’s Delivery Service and this allows us to see them in a new lens and reflect. As Kiki begins to lose her powers, and is unable to understand her cat Gigi (Phil Hartman), she sees it as a destruction of her whole reality and spirals into a depression. As she works to get herself out of the spiral, she learns that maturity is less the things you accomplish, but how you carry yourself as you accomplish them. - Zach Dennis
The Sandlot (1993) by David M. Evans
Something that resonates with me with films in this genre are coming-of-age movies that allow the characters to escape along with other kids in the neighborhood. This is something that I did when I was younger — playing football in the yard or creating extravagant games for the neighbors to join on. This idea of community together was synonymous with growing up to me.
While this quality can be found in most of the films of this genre, the one that feels most resounding is The Sandlot. While including baseball into the plot adds a few points, the film also carries the escapism of youth through friends and sports that echoed in my own mind.
The entire story being focused around Smalls (Tom Guiry) breaking from his own anxieties and making friends is universal. Baseball was less a game that he aspired to follow through with as he grew older, but a means to interact with others. In its core, that is the essence of sports — this means to find community within the constraints of a game, which makes it a natural surrogate for the genre.
As the story progresses, and the kids becoming closer, it shows why people play the games they do. Friendships last longer than athletic abilities and can be as therapeutic as any other medical remedy. The Sandlot encapsulates this notion of finding acceptance amongst others and allows its characters to build their own lives and stories through this lens. - Zach Dennis
Whale Rider (2002) by Niki Caro
What’s it like growing up in a male-centric Maori tribe near the roaring coast of New Zealand? Director Niki Caro gives us a taste through the eyes of young Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Traditionally males are the only ones allowed to rise as leaders in a Maori tribe, but this tradition is broken when Pai’s twin brothers dies and only she survives as the chief’s heir. Her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) bound by tradition refuses to recognize Pai as anything other than a young girl who could never lead his people.
The combination of a peaceful New Zealand atmosphere mixed with the heartbreaking tension between Pai and her grandfather make for a truly memorable coming of age film from a different cultural perspective. My eyes tear up throughout several moments in this film, but it’s so endearing to see Pai use her stubbornness to claim her birthright.
In many ways, I see myself in her character as well as characters like her—including Lilo from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002). Both movies start a trend found in coming of age films to follow. And if nothing else, this movie is worth seeing just to hear Nanny Flowers call grandfather, a silly old Paka. - Jessica Carr
Submarine (2010) by Richard Ayoade
“I’m sure when I’m 38 none of this will matter.”
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a cynical adult trapped inside a 15-year-old’s body. Submarine follows his coming of age journey as an English schoolboy who wants to lose his virginity before his next birthday, and figure out if his mom is sneaking around with an ex-lover. Set to the quirk and dark humor that only director Richard Ayoade can provide, Submarine gives the audience most elements they would expect from a coming of age film—young love, heartbreak, and an eagerness to know what the future will hold. Where the film strays is how it presents these themes to the audience.
Ayoade uses a mixture of character narration and interesting visual elements to make this film more unique. At times, it can border on overdramatic, but that’s what being a teenager feels like. The most angsty scene is when Jordana (Yasmin Paige) sends Oliver a break-up letter. He plays a cassette tape and lies on his bed as it turns into a boat and he is floating in the ocean. Artic Monkeys frontman, Alex Turner, provides the best acoustic soundtrack that any British movie could possibly deserve. It becomes the perfect playlist for young precocious Oliver as he tries to find his way. - Jessica Carr
Tomboy (2011) by Céline Sciamma
Coming of age films tend to center around the search for identity, but the identities represented tend to lean towards uniformity. If you look back to some of the foundational coming of age tales--Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn--it becomes pretty clear that these stories, while often great, are equally often about boys finding a sense of manhood. Not so in Céline Sciamma’s lush and poetic Tomboy, which shows a child (assigned/perceived by their family as female) finding a sense of boyhood.
The 10-year-old and obviously masculine Laure, after moving to a new suburb, self-introduces to the local kids as Mikäel. Thus begins the double-life of Tomboy’s protagonist, and the rest of the film plays out with great anxiety and uncertainty (the audience constantly asking: “what happens when someone finds out?”), despite Sciamma’s gorgeous camerawork capturing the idyllic natural beauty of Laure/Mikäel’s neighborhood with such calm and patience, perfectly complementing the organic way the character’s masculinity grows over the course of the film. And the way Sciamma structures her film communicates so much empathy.
Tomboy’s early scenes lead unknowing viewers to believe Laure/Mikäel is simply a cis-male before an understated reveal during bathtime--and for almost the entire runtime, we only see the protagonist in unisex clothing. This set up is of crucial importance for the final act; when the child is forced into a feminine dress, it feels profoundly wrong in a way that transcends conventional understandings, dogma, or politics. Tomboy is a quiet film, though, and it leaves many of its own questions unanswered, foregoing propaganda and opting to simply offer a modest story about a very specific and often unsung type of childhood. - Andrew Swafford
We Are The Best! (2013) by Lukas Moodysson
This one’s kind of cheating, because I wouldn’t exactly call this film’s main characters mature at the end of the film, but We Are The Best! is possibly the most delightful and electric story about childhood rebelliousness I’ve ever seen.
Focusing on two androgynous 13-year-old outcasts with a love for obscure DIY punk rock music made by kids around the same age, this movie demonstrates the monumental significance of music in the lives of young people. The film’s plot is kicked off by the two girls being given access to their community center’s drumkit and guitar, and despite having ABSOLUTELY NO (read: zero) musical talent, they proceed to bang away at them with an intensity and passion that is nothing short of inspiring.
We Are The Best! is the anti-Whiplash, preferring to shine a light on the joy of music as opposed to the rigorous discipline of sharpening technical chops. The communal aspect is equally important: the girls of the film play a specific type of middle-school punk rock that they’re likely to grow out of once those repetitive power chords lose their sparkle, but for the time being, it provides a sense of freedom and community denied to them by the judgemental uniformity of mainstream public school cliques. The mall-goth/emo phase of growing up is perhaps one of the most quintessentially millennial social phenomenons, and this film captures a Swedish equivalent of it tenderly and lovingly, revealing all that dark makeup and spiky hair to be less about depressive angst and more about friendship--it’s liberating, effusive, and full of life. - Andrew Swafford
Inside Out (2015) by Pete Doctor
In case you’ve been on a spiritual retreat in the Himalayas for the past 2 years, or living off-the-grid in the remote Canadian forest to avoid the NSA, you’ve probably seen Inside Out. And if you’ve seen it once, you’ve probably seen it at least twice — it’s that kind of film. (If you’re like me, you’ve seen it, oh, maybe 9-15 times?)
Directed by Pete Docter, Pixar’s latest gem (I know The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory followed Inside Out, but…yeah, moving on), stars the 11-year old Riley and her five emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Backed by an all-star cast of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, and Kaitlyn Dias, the visually-stunning film packs a powerful punch in the classic Pixar fashion.
We follow Riley—all of Riley, including her thoughts—as she transitions from life in Minnesota to life in San Francisco, in addition to her transition into a teenager. This move reeks havoc on Riley’s emotional state, causing her core memories and vital pillars of her personality to change and morph as she grapples with a new life. This change, caused by Sadness and Joy within Riley’s mind, is substantial, and the audience sees the big picture while our protagonist struggles with her internal conflicts. The film reveals just how much we are shaped by the outside world, but also how much we’re shaped by our own emotions. My sadness and anger aren’t the same as your sadness and anger, and this affects me differently than it affects you, and Riley comes to understand this and much more over the course of the film.
If you haven’t seen Inside Out, I won’t bring to light the film’s most profound revelation (that’s a big spoiler), but if you’re one of the readers who has seen it, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Pete Docter’s extraordinary vision and talent as a storyteller is seen in every frame of this film and I can’t recommend Inside Out enough, both to children and adults. - John McAmis