Coming of Age on the Big Screen

Human beings are innately obsessed with stories. As creatures, we depend on stories to help us express ourselves and connect with one another. Movies help distill our stories down into understandable and emotional experiences in a language that we can all understand. While much of cinema can be an escape, the best stories are relatable and enlightening to human beings. These reflect experiences, emotions, ideas, and periods of life that we have either gone through, are currently experiencing, or will live through one day.

If there’s one stage of life that is explored more than any other on screen, it is the “coming of age” story. You can easily find multiple examples from literally every year that movies have been in existence. On one hand, they all revolve around a central idea that can only be interpreted in so many ways. On the other hand, to not continue to tell the story of a person transitioning into adulthood is to neglect the differences between generations and potentially ignore people who have never had a version of their tale represented before.

That’s not to say that the coming of age genre is not without its pitfalls. Because literally every adult in existence has gone through this transitory period at some point in their lives, the ideas explored in these stories can cross the line between relatable and boring. Good stories reflect our lives while providing a piece of insight that audiences may not have been able to easily reach on their own. It’s up to each storyteller to find the truth and beauty in each narrative they create.

Making the Move into Adulthood

The general conceit of a coming of age movie is this: a young protagonist at some stage of childhood encounters a challenge that forces him or her to mature emotionally, spiritually, or even physically in order to move forward in his or her life. Having changed, he or she is now an adult for better or worse.

It’s a rather simple setup that has much in common with The Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth, which influences most narratives and their protagonists. The difference is that lead characters in coming of age movies transform from child to adult during their journeys and once they have returned from the unknown they are unable to return to the state they were in before the cycle began. As such, the best coming of age movies should not have tidy conclusions because the beginning of adulthood is not the end of the journey, it is another stage that has even more challenges to come, but it is worth it.

The difficulty with these stories is that most heroes in coming of age tales are immature in one way or another and are therefore difficult protagonists. They may go so far as to resist the call to maturity or be their own biggest challenge in the journey. However, a well-crafted character can be relatable in all stages of the story, making the resolution that much more powerful in the end. Additionally, the change from being a child to being an adult is not like flipping a switch, it is a long and winding progression filled with setbacks, successes, and mistakes. Depending on the message of the film, this can be clearly represented in the reality of the story’s end. Additionally, a movie can choose to focus on just one of the many lessons that must be learned.

Representing the Rest of the World

The most unfortunate thing about the glut of coming of age movies is that, like much of cinema as a whole, they focus on white male protagonists.

To assert that the transition from childhood to adulthood for a white American male is emblematic of the human experience as a whole is to deny the unique and equally important challenges that are experienced by women, other races, different cultures, different economic statuses, and other countries as a whole. That’s not to say that many of the coming of age tales that center on male leads are unimportant, it’s just that their continued prevalence and frequent adulation is a troubling reminder of where so much of the world’s power lies.

Thankfully, there are many amazing movies that focus on different people groups. Even when these movies do not completely succeed in their storytelling, the fact that there are people dedicated to representing different life experiences is its own kind of success. The true beauty in humanity is that we are all far more similar to one another than we believe, but that our differences mean that we can learn so much from one another if we just open our hearts and minds to lives different from our own. To deny minorities the chance to have their story told to the world is to deny basic rights and destroy beauty before it can be shown.

Finding Truth in Fiction

While most people think of stories grounded in reality when they consider the coming of age genre, there are plenty that step into the fantasy and science fiction realms. After all, the great thing about fiction is that a creator can shape new worlds and logic in order to more powerfully illustrate an aspect of the human condition.

The original Spider-Man from 2002 is most certainly a coming of age movie, with ideas of puberty, responsibility, and guilt all playing a part in Peter Parker’s transition into becoming a hero. Yes, he wears colorful tights and swings from webs, but those are essential themes to the character and his journey. Even better, the ideas of responsibility, destiny, and sacrifice continue in Spider-Man 2, where the pressures of adulthood are explored past the actual coming of age. Showing that there is more to becoming an adult than simply leaving the teenage years behind is part of the reason why Spider-Man 2 is such a strong sequel.

There are plenty more examples of heightened coming of age tales, each with their own unique spin on the journey.

Iconic Coming of Age Films

Whether you are looking for a movie that exemplifies what you have experienced in life or are looking to expand your worldview, there are plenty of amazing coming of age films available. The following represent experiences far and wide and each are a worthwhile experience.

The 400 Blows – Perhaps the defining film of the genre, Francois Truffaut’s story focuses on a young rebellious but talented young boy, chafing under authoritarian rule at home and school. The director would go on to chronicle the character of Antoine Doinel in 5 films across 20 years.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – One of the great 80s comedies, John Hughes’ film may be mostly fun and games, but there are meditations on the end of high school and the looming burden of adulthood.

Boyz n The Hood – An unflinching look at life in Inglewood, California, John Singleton’s story on the effects of crime and violence shows how redemption and destruction can both come from a split second decision.

The Breakfast Club – John Hughes’ story puts five very different teenagers together in Saturday detention, forcing them to confront their differences and similarities as they have in common. What they discover helps them grow up along the way.

Life of Pi – Pi Patel recounts the story of when he was lost at sea in a raft with a Bengal tiger names Richard Parker. The tragic events and strange encounters mark his transition into being an adult.

Good Will Hunting – Will Hunting is a genius whose criminal record and many issues keep him from both success and fulfilling relationships. His sessions with a therapist and the formation of a good relationship force him to recognize his own trauma and his true talents.

Almost Famous – A teenage journalist is hired by Rolling Stone Magazine to document an up and coming band on the road. The idea of meeting your heroes and having reality smack you in the face are vital parts of his coming of age.

City of God – Teenagers living in a crime-ridden favela of Rio de Janeiro try to survive in an inescapable world of organized crime.

Real Women Have Curves – A Mexican-American teenage girl in East Los Angeles deals with a judgmental family and cultural expectations.

The Motorcycle Diaries – A young Che Guevara travels through South America with his friend, experiencing poverty and needs, leading to him forming views that would turn him into a revolutionary.

Y Tu Mama Tambien – Two Mexican teenage boys take a road trip with an older woman, leading to unexpected romance and changing views.

Rushmore – An eccentric teen and a rich industrialist become friends, then enemies, when they both fall in love with a teacher. Despite their age difference, both men desperately need to grow up.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – A shy teenager breaks out of his angst through the help of fellow outcast friends, but it’s the weight of his sexual abuse at a young age that he must truly confront in the end.

Ghost World – Two social outcast teenage girls find their friendship and dreams falling apart as high school ends, leaving them questioning what the future will hold for both of them.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi tells the true story of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Her self-discovery and womanhood puts her at direct odds with the changing culture of her home, leaving her to deal with tragedies and triumphs.

Have your own favorite coming of age movie not included here? Put yours in the comment section below.
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