Because the summer is finally in full swing (and we’re still looking for new ways to discuss Moonrise Kingdom), we’ve rounded up some of our favorite films from the season notorious for oppressive family vacations, summer camp, post-grad crises, and extraterrestrial visits — all wonderful expositions for growing up. At the same time, some of our favorite coming-of-age films illustrate that brief window of having zero responsibility, suggesting that maybe it’s endless hours of conversation and neighborhood adventure with friends (or whoever’s house is in biking distance) that have the most profound effect on us.
But whatever the premise, we generally seem to enjoy these stories (even the terrible ones — thank you, TBS) because they evoke recognizable parts of ourselves, either making us extremely nostalgic or thankful for the periods we’ll never have to revisit. And they can help those of us still trying to grow up feel not so alone. You can click through to see what we’re talking about, and we hope that you’ll share the coming-of-age films you love most in the comments, because gosh, doesn’t all this talk of childhood have you feeling warm and sappy and like sharing?
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Reality tells us two 12-year-olds are way too young to find eternal love, but we can’t help but fall under Wes Anderson’s spell (again) and get behind Sam and Suzy as they journey from awkward French kissing and marriage (see above) to nearly certain death in the span of days. They speak with sincerity that is palpable, especially in juxtaposition with adults like Suzy’s mother, who addresses her family through a megaphone. One of our favorite examples of their dialogue is an early scene in which Suzy stares down at the corpse of Snoopy — a casualty from an early battle — and asks if he was a good dog. Sam replies, also staring down at the corpse, “Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die.” Equally heartening is the story of the Khaki Scout comrades, who abandon their bad-guy role midway through when they decide — by way of a tree-house summit — to help the young lovers reunite.
Super 8 (2011)
The critics got a little picky with this one last summer, which is to be expected when a film is billed as an homage to one of the most successful directors of all time. For some viewers there was not enough extraterrestrial stuff, while for others there was too much, but whatever your feelings, there’s no denying the exceptional depth of J.J. Abrams’ leads — a band of young filmmakers who go from shooting their own zombie flick for a local film festival one quiet summer in 1979, to saving their small Ohio town from an actual supernatural crisis. The movie evolves from standard coming-of-age summer fare to a true horror film with aplomb, and although the ending was perhaps a little too E.T., Super 8 succeeds as a wonderfully heartfelt and entertaining whole.
Almost Famous (2000)
In this tale (inspired by director Cameron Crowe’s own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone), 15-year-old William Miller goes on tour with his favorite band Stillwater and their groupies, namely the beautiful, free-spirited Penny Lane (a role for which Kate Hudson received an Academy Award nomination). William, of course, falls in love with Penny, but she is hung up on Russell, the self-absorbed rock star, and even if you haven’t seen the film you can imagine how that goes. Along the trip William learns what every teenager comes to terms with at some point: our heroes usually disappoint us and the people we first love probably won’t love us like we love them (because they’re already in love with someone who is a jerk).
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Like many young American kids heading to Europe for a summer (in this case Barcelona), Vicky and Cristina have grand notions of their vacation. And although their expectations are drastically different — one dreams of cultural enlightenment and the other passion — they both end up tangled in the tumultuous relationship of seductive painter Juan Antonio (the “ethical slut”) and his magnetically insane ex-wife Maria Elena (a role that earned Penélope Cruz an Academy Award). The experience doesn’t end up being what either Vicky or Cristina had anticipated, and they return home, depleted from their vacation and the realization that unconventional love — and vacation — are merely romantic ideals. In other words, another wonderful lesson on youthful narcissism, by Woody Allen.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Johnny Depp’s Gilbert Grape is too young (and good looking) to be trapped in dead-end Endora, Iowa, where he is caretaker of his autistic brother Arnie, as well as his morbidly obese mother who hasn’t left the house in seven years. Even more depressing is the fact that a giant supermarket chain called “FoodLand” portends his increasingly hopeless-seeming future. But then a quirky young woman named Becky comes to town by way of the annual mobile-home caravan and changes his outlook on life by teaching him interesting things, like the mating habits of the praying mantis, as well as encouraging him to open up for the first time in his life about his fears and frustrations. As an added bonus she gets along really well with Arnie, and even gets him to take a bath. Eventually, Gilbert is able to leave Endora behind because of Becky and everything she showed him that summer (and the fact that she’s his ride out of town).
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Laser and Joni turn their family upside down one summer when they make contact with their sperm-donor dad, who is very cool until he sleeps with their mom Jules and their other mom Nic finds out. As much as this film is about the relationship between the three adults, it’s also about the kids (who set this whole mess into motion) and their disappointment in their parents and love. At the end Laser tells his moms they should be together because they are old, a sign that he understands the imperfect nature of relationships and that being just “all right” is perhaps the best we can hope for. Kudos to him for figuring that one out early.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
When it comes to coming-of-age trilogies, Toy Story is one of the best, which is remarkable considering it tells a story of growing up without actually showing a kid, well, growing up. Instead, we experience Andy’s growth through his toys and the respective identity crises they suffer as their true toy purposes are called into question. Each film marks an important coming-of-age moment in Andy’s life, the second being cowboy summer camp, which Woody is supposed to attend until his arm accidentally gets ripped off. Things devolve further from there, when he gets stolen by an evil toy collector who wants to sell him to a toy museum in Tokyo, and over the course of the film we see Woody weigh the importance of seeing out Andy’s childhood — and his own decreasing worth. Meanwhile, Randy Newman continues to manipulate our hearts.
The Sandlot (1993)
On the surface this is the story of the nerdy kid with a stiff baseball cap who finds acceptance at the neighborhood sandlot one summer, and learns normal coming-of-age things from his new friends, like how to make s’mores, the perilous nature of chewing tobacco before riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the risk/reward ratio of staging your own drowning to get a hot lifeguard to make out with you. And on a deeper level, the movie is about the insane power of fear over young brains— rendered in the form of a 300-pound dog. So, unless you never had an imagination, it’s difficult not to love this film.
Stand by Me (1986)
The premise of this coming-of-age classic — four boys setting out to find a dead body — automatically lends this one a darker tone, than say, Sandlot, but it’s also the town of Castle Rock, population 1,281, and dirtbags like “Ace” (Kiefer Sutherland) trolling around that give this film its edge. Sure, it has the trappings of youthful adventure (train dodging, campfire debates about the biology of Goofy, leeches in underpants), but at the heart of the film is the pain of growing up with the knowledge that life isn’t fair and maybe everything won’t be OK. And when our narrator speeds us back up at the end to inform us of the boys’ less-than-fairy-tale endings (especially when compared to, again, those lucky Sandlot kids — Benny gets to play pro ball and Squints marries Wendy Peffercorn?!), it’s hard not to sigh in recognition. By the time he types the closing sentence of the story, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?,” we’re always in tears.
Now and Then (1995)
Here’s one for the ladies. A cross between Sandlot and Stand By Me, this nostalgia-driven narrative follows four best friends over the summer of 1970 as they take on their own murder investigation, wage war on the opposite sex, and come to terms with their boobs. Most memorable of the gang is Roberta (played by ’90s it-girl Christina Ricci), who takes the saccharine tone down a few notches with her Scout Finch-like tomboy attitude and general badassery (see above clip, post Jell-O-balloon massacre, around 5:45: “We owe you Wormers, and we always pay our debts!”). Like others of its genre, this film (by way of Demi Moore’s voice-over) raises the question of whether childhood truly is the best time of our lives, and if we all get just one awesome (or in the parlance of Stand by Me, “boss”) summer before we all turn into hardened adult carcasses. Today this concern seems to be transplanted by the sentiment that kids don’t have summers like this at all, opting to stay inside and play video games while chowing on junk food. If that’s the case, then we feel grateful we got to enjoy pack bike rides while they were en vogue — an activity films like this get profoundly right.
It’s only just now that we realized HBO’s Girls evokes the setup of Adventureland, despite the latter’s 1987 setting: James Brennan (sweet Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college grad with a degree in Comparative Lit from Oberlin, plans on going to Europe for the summer until his parents tell him they won’t be able to support his grad school education at Columbia the following year. He is then forced to get a summer job at the local theme park in his hometown (the only place that will take him), where everything pretty much goes horribly. This film (like Girls) is about stalling out just when you think you’re moving forward, an incredibly relatable experience for every 20-something still waiting to come of age today. And while the story doesn’t tie up with a perfect bow, our leading man does finally lose his virginity, a happy ending we can get behind, because sweet lord he’s earned it by now.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
We’ve all felt like Baby at some point in our lives — i.e., the girl with the watermelon, awkwardly looking in at everyone else in the room (see: “I carried a watermelon“). This, of course, is where the similarities between our ingénue and normal people end. The cold, hard truth is that no one ever gets Johnny Castle as their sexual spirit guide/personal dance instructor. So yes, Dirty Dancing may feed our fantasies more than it does practical aspirations, but at its purest level this film’s about enjoying one of the most liberating forms of human expression — and is that so wrong?
Breaking Away (1979)
It’s easy to see why Breaking Away is a favorite selection among outdoor film series: its scenery is killer (see this training clip), it has lovably lost characters you want to root for (one tagline for the movie was, “The story of four guys in imminent danger of turning 20”), and there’s an uplifting ending that plays out in the form of one helluva bike race (based on the real life Little 500). Throw in themes of class war, identity crisis, parental pressure, and love, and you’ve got yourself a top-notch coming-of-age flick.
Spirited Away (2001)
Another film that uses “away” in its title to indicate departure from childhood (the translation of Miyazaki’s original is literally The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro), this animated masterpiece tells the tale of Chihiro, a young girl feeling sorry for herself at the prospect of moving to a new town and leaving her old friends behind. But when her family’s car ride to their new home is derailed by a wrong turn and then a detour to what they believe is an abandoned theme park, it’s only a matter of time before her parents are transformed into pigs and she’s trapped in an alternate spirit world controlled by the evil witch Yubaba. There, she develops the strength and wits to free herself and her family, as well as an old friend (google Chihiro and Haku for a world of fanfic) — and emerges an empowered young woman ready to handle the challenges of her new life. Even if you’re not a fan of animated flicks, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by Miyazaki’s spirits, monsters, and other unworldly creatures for which the film has drawn Through the Looking-Glass comparisons.
This heartfelt documentary about Swift Nature Camp in northern Wisconsin (scored by The Flaming Lips!) will make you long for simpler days, when you got to fill your summer with canoe rides and wheelbarrow racing. Or, failing that, it will provoke a resurgence of loathing towards your parents for the day they sent you to live in captivity with a bunch of wackjob kids for three months. Either way, this film takes a poignant look at the strange American custom of sleepaway camp, and reminds us that we all were once kids, and therefore, for a period of time, totally insane.