Growing up is terrifying, confusing, exhilarating, and heartbreaking all at the same time. It is truly the best of times and the worst of times. And once it’s gone, you can never get it back. At times growing up can be pretty hard to navigate. But luckily there are films that so finely depict the adolescent experiences, those turning points in life that everyone goes through.
1. The Breakfast Club
Really, any of John Hughes movies can be on this list. His films were the defining films of the 80s and the teenage experience. Whether you’re a geek, a jock, a rebel or the popular girl, underneath it all we are all going through the same struggles of youth. The stereotypes strip away to reveal that we are all just as confused and troubled as the next person. Funny, sincere and insightful The Breakfast Club is the quintessential high school movie.
2. Stand By Me
Nothing means more to a kid than summer. No school, no responsibilities, just the freedom to have adventures with your friends during those hot sticky days and breezy summer nights. But these group of friends are growing older, heading to middle school now, and the end of summer means the end of their innocence is looming. And the most definitive way to mark the end of innocence is the boy’s adventure to go look at a dead body for the first time. Click here to see more thoughts on this renowned coming-of-age film.
3. The Graduate
Growing up doesn’t end as soon as you graduate high school, it doesn’t even end when you’re in college. Graduating college is just as confusing of a time, probably one of the most imperative moments where you grapple with the end of youth and the beginning of true adulthood. Benjamin Braddock deals with that awkward post-grad summer in Mike Nichols’ stylish classic. See more of my thoughts on The Graduate here and here.
Quite possibly one of the most genius achievements in cinema. If you don’t know by now, Boyhood was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years, so we literally see them growing up before our eyes. We follow Mason from the age of six to eighteen. And it is quite a marvel to see him grow. Boyhood is not a sappy look at the typical milestones of growing up, but instead an intricate portrait of the human experience, true-to-life and fascinating. This film will truly stand the test of time.
5. The Spectacular Now
The Spectacular Now is an authentic and sensitive portrayal of teenagers, wonderfully led by Miles Teller accompanied by Shailene Woodley. . This isn’t a typical teen movie, it’s not quite a love story but more about loving yourself. It is honestly mature and moving, but also funny and charming. Hands down one of the best teen movies in years, and something that John Hughes would be quite proud of. See my full review here
6. Ordinary People
I think this movie is incredibly overlooked as a coming-of-age film. Perhaps because most coming-of-age stories deal with innocence being lost, and this is innocence being regained. We enter the life of Conrad Jarrett, home from a stay at the mental hospital after a suicide attempt. He is dealing with depression after the death of his brother. And having an emotionally stunted mother doesn’t help. Conrad deals with returning to high school and therapy, adjusting to life after “the accident”. Being a teenager does not mean you are susceptible to mental illness or depression. And Ordinary People shows the importance of regaining what you have lost in dark times, to see the light for your only time of youth.
7. Perks of Being a Wallflower
The book is immensely popular, and the film does it justice. Of course, it helps that it was directed and written by the book’s author. And thank goodness it was, because this faithful adaptation boasts a great soundtrack and strong performances. Some of the dialogue can be a bit eye-roll inducing to it’s overexposure (We get it – you felt infinite. I’ve seen the quote 1,000 times on Tumblr.) But most notably, it is one of the most sensitive and honest portrayals of teenage angst, bravely delving into issues of incest, depression, and homophobia that other teen films rarely-if ever- touch upon.
8. Say Anything
The 80s brought a slew of incredible teen films, and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything is one of them. And you can’t get more 80s than John Cusack holding up a boombox to a Peter Gabriel song. The summer after high school is another confusing time, you’re old life as you knew it is ending- something new and exciting (or something new and awful) is on it’s way, changing your life completely. And what happens when you meet the love of your life the during that life-altering summer? What happens if you’re both from two completely different background? School vs. love vs. obligations to parents…Say Anything covers it all in this heartfelt romance.
9. The Last Picture Show
The three teen characters in The Last Picture show are fresh out of high school in the year 1951. , Confined in their dead-end town, they are in a rush to grow up as quickly as possible. Jacy deals with her budding sexuality and quest to lose her virginity, in the wake of her realization that she is the prettiest and most sought-after girl in town. Sonny has an affair with the depressed wife of his football coach. Duane enlists for the fight in Korea. Their community is in shambles, and so are they. They only realize before it’s too late that their youth is truly over. The picture show is gone, no more movies or fun at the pool hall.
Mermaids is a charming, funny, and heartwarming film led by Winona Ryder in her adolescent prime. The perfect picture of the moody teenager. But her angst has a sweetness and innocence to it. She deals with her flamboyant mother, her desire to be the most devout Catholic (even though she’s Jewish) and the temptation of a sexy older groundskeeper. Not only a great coming-of-age story, but also a mother-daughter story that perfectly depicts the friction that mothers and daughters go through during those tough teenage years.