Richard Linklater’s Boyhood continues its seemingly inevitable move towards world domination, expanding to more theaters over the weekend and capturing the imaginations and hearts of even the most jaded moviegoers. Meanwhile, Naomi Foner’s evocative Very Good Girls also opened last weekend (on fewer screens), with a welcome female take on that whole “becoming a grown-up” thing. In other words, it’s a very good time for the coming-of-age movie, where maturity is gained and lessons are learned and lifelong memories are made, so with that in mind, we’ve rounded up a few of our all-time favorites.
25. The Squid and the Whale
Ah, to be a young, smarmy know-it-all. Noah Baumbach’s loosely autobiographical 2005 comedy/drama follows a high schooler (Jesse Eisenberg, in one of his first roles) through his parents’ difficult divorce — a family shake-up that he copes with by stealing songs, being horrible to girls, and parroting the views and behavior of his bitter father (a perfect Jeff Daniels). With wit and pathos, Baumbach elegantly captures the moment when a young man stops wanting to be like his dad, and starts to realize the value of being himself.
24. The Sandlot
David M. Evans’ 1993 charming comedy/drama almost feels like the result of a super-computer designed specifically to make a coming-of-age film: boys on the cusp of the teen years, nostalgic setting and feel, and baseball. Lots and lots of baseball.
23. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn, and America Ferrera aren’t just your ‘00s TV dream team — they’re the titular sisterhood of this lovely 2005 drama, which transcends its silly premise (it really is about some traveling pants) via a keenly felt screenplay (co-written by Nora Ephron’s sister Delia) that’s a little sweet, a little sentimental, and endlessly relatable.
22. Real Women Have Curves
Traveling Pants’ Ferrera made her film debut with this wonderful 2002 Sundance hit, where she stars as a recent high school graduate who, in a turn of the genre, knows exactly who she is, what she is, and what she wants — it’s her family and friends that take some convincing.
21. This Boy’s Life
A young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio found his breakthrough role in Michael Caton-Jones’ harrowing 1993 drama, based on Tobias Wolff’s memoir. DiCaprio’s Toby is, by ‘50s standards, a bit of a bad kid — rebellious, angry, a troublemaker. But Caton-Jones masterfully captures how the “tough love” of Robert De Niro’s loathsome stepfather Dwight turns him from a boy into a man too soon — if for no other reason than self-preservation.
20. Girl, Interrupted
A period setting is all but required for your coming-of-age movie (more often than not, it’s when the writer or filmmaker came of age), and sure enough, James Mangold’s 2000 adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s book gives us a ‘60s timeframe, a formative romance, and lessons galore. It also features a tremendous ensemble cast and what remains Angelina Jolie’s best film performance.
19. Boyz N The Hood
John Singleton’s 1991 hit opens with a flashback sequence that seems swiped straight from Stand By Me, right down to the search for a dead body. But Singleton’s not just paying homage. That long sequence sets up the one of his key themes: the transition from boyhood to manhood, and the many dangers and diversions that can interrupt that journey. And in its remarkable climactic scenes, Singleton memorably dramatizes how a single, heat-of-the-moment decision can torpedo an entire life — or save it.
18. Mystic Pizza
Donald Petrie’s 1988 drama is mostly remembered for launching Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio, and (in a tiny cameo) Matt Damon. But it’s much more than a spot-the-future-star picture — Mystic tells three simultaneous coming-of-age stories, with warmth, pathos, and a surprisingly effective dash of social commentary.
Spike Lee’s modest follow-up to Malcolm X is perhaps his most personal picture, co-written with sister Joie and brother Cinqué, loosely based on their childhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The ‘70s setting and soundtrack conjure up instant nostalgia, as does Lee’s portrait of neighborhood life in a pre-video game world, but its performances are the real attraction — particularly Delroy Lindo as the large family’s patriarch and Alfre Woodard, never better as the disciplinarian mother.
16. A Bronx Tale
Another nostalgic tale of a New York childhood, this one from writer/star Chazz Palminteri (adapting his play) and director/co-star Robert De Niro, who transcends the stickball-in-the-streets clichés of NYC period pieces to craft a nuanced portrait of a young man caught between two persuasive and complicated father figures. De Niro’s direction is sharp and confident — it’s a shame he hasn’t spent more time on that side of the camera — while Palminteri turns in a star-making performance. And his “first date test” remains one of the most practical pieces of advice to be found in a coming-of-age movie.
15. An Education
Director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby adapt Lynn Barber’s memoir of her teen years in Twickenham, London in the early 1960s, and her romance with a man nearly twice her age. It’s a film that understands the many complex transactions of such a relationship — and how our protagonist (Carey Mulligan, breathtakingly good) comes out of it stronger and, for better or worse, wiser.
Looking back, it can feel like you had to grow up overnight — but never quite as literally as in Penny Marshall’s wonderful 1988 comedy/drama, where little Josh Baskin wishes he were big and wakes up in the body of a full-grown Tom Hanks. Yet there’s still a terrified 12-year-old lurking in there, forced to catch up with his grown-up form, which is about as accurate a description of adulthood as I can think of.
13. Almost Famous
An extended (never-ending, as far as his mother is concerned) stint on the road with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater makes a man of teenage Rolling Stone writer William Miller — and not jut because he’s “de-virginized” by a trio of groupies “Band-Aids.” Young William has his eyes opened to the ways of the world, is disappointed by his heroes, and (most importantly) experiences true heartbreak. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical drama is a valentine to music, to fandom, to youth, and to the heart-wrenching pangs of first love.
12. Y Tu Mama Tambien
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 indie smash finds two hormone-fueled teenage boys (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) taking an impromptu road trip with a sexy older woman (Maribel Verdú), and doing quite a bit of growing up along the way. Cuarón brilliantly mashes up sociopolitical commentary, travelogue, and horny teenager movie — all the while boldly taking on the sexual subtext that’s often left unstated in Hollywood’s slick (and dumb) “losing it” comedies.
11. Blue Is the Warmest Color
Most of the conversation surrounding Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner made it sound like softcore porn (or, worse, subtitled navel-gazing). But the storytelling is direct and emotional, a heartfelt account of a charismatic young woman coming of age, discovering her true self, falling into real love, and finding herself badly wrecked when it is utterly, incontrovertibly over. Adèle Exarchopoulos crafts one of the greatest, most underrated performances in recent memory — you can never catch her acting, and she is never less than totally present.
10. The Breakfast Club
The shaky precipice between adolescence and adulthood was the guiding principle behind much of John Hughes’ work (before he turned his attention to making Home Alone, and then remaking it a bunch of times), and he captured that moment most memorably and gracefully in this iconic 1985 hit. It sounds like a mere writer’s exercise — take five stock high school types, lock them in a room, and make them talk to each other — but Hughes’ remarkable ear for dialogue and skill with performers turned the schematic into something divine.
Growing up isn’t only for the young — witness Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece, in which both Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer and Bill Murray’s Herman Blume resist their more mature natures to engage in a childish battle for the love of Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Rushmore is the best kind of coming-of-age movie, where sentimentality is throttled and flaws are embraced, yet the journey of the characters is moving nonetheless.
8. Rebel Without a Cause
The quintessential teenage movie (and one of the first, for that matter), with the late, great James Dean battling bullies, hormones, parents, and adolescent ennui in ‘50s-era Los Angeles. The melodrama plays a little broad these days, but no matter; Nicholas Ray’s direction remains vibrant, and Dean’s performance is still a barn-burner.
7. Welcome to the Dollhouse
Writer/director Todd Solondz has made a career of spotlighting society’s outcasts, but never more effectively or memorably than in his 1995 breakthrough picture. Heather Matarazzo is quietly perfect as a shy and unpopular seventh grader battling the daily horror show that is middle school, and Solondz doesn’t shoehorn her into a Hollywood narrative; there’s no softening of her antisocial intensity and no heartwarming makeover sequence, and certainly nothing as mundane as a happy ending. In a way, Solondz delivers the most honest message of all: it’s going to be terrible like this for a good, long while.
6. Breaking Away
Peter Yates directed this poignant, charming, and very funny 1979 comedy/drama, concerning four friends and their adventures in the “what now?” year following high school graduation. There’s plenty in it to chew on — finding one’s own personality, struggling with class distinctions, romance, the importance and value of friendships — but Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning screenplay shies away from preaching or packing, letting the events of this Indiana town unfold with the ease and inevitability of everyday life.
5. The Virgin Suicides
Sofia Coppola made a mesmerizing directorial debut with this lyrical, haunting adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, crafting as accurate a portrait of awkward adolescence as has ever made it to the screen. And, in keeping the novel’s male perspective (and narration), Coppola managed to make one of the few coming-of-age films that seems to capture the experience of both sexes; we see the Lisbon sisters both through the sympathetic eye of the female filmmaker, and through the male gaze of the neighborhood boys who idolize them.
4. The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich became one of the brightest stars of the 1970s “New Hollywood” movement with this ruminative, intoxicating portrait of small-town unhappiness, circa 1951. The filmmaker, adapting Larry McMurty’s novel, gets both the broad strokes and the tiniest details right, finding the painful truth in the story’s strained friendships and businesslike sexual transactions.
3. Ghost World
Terry Zwigoff and co-screenwriter Daniel Clowes (adapting his wonderful graphic novel) manage to pull of the tricky feat of both loving their protagonist and seeing through her; Thora Birch’s Enid is sort of a prototypical hipster, yet she’s not as tough or unapproachable as she’d like to think. At any rate, it’s hard to think of a film that has better captured the feeling of being young and smart and seeing so much around you that is utterly contemptible.
2. Stand By Me
Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s atypical novella The Body takes place during Labor Day weekend in 1959, but it’s not just about the end of summer; it’s about (everybody sing along) the end of innocence. Yet Reiner’s film isn’t pure nostalgia, and it isn’t easy, either; this is an unblinking look at the pain of adolescence, and a heart-tugging portrait of growing up and growing apart.
1. The 400 Blows
Much of the praise for Boyhood (contrary to the bloviating of known troll and general terrible person Armond White) noted the precedent of François Truffaut, who chronicled the young life of Antoine Doinel (played Jean-Pierre Léaud) in five features and one short over 20 years. This was the first, and best, of that series, finding young Antoine on the verge of outright juvenile delinquency — rebelling against his school, his teacher, and his parents. Truffaut does not apologize for Doinel, but he does attempt to understand him (and, thus, himself, as the character was based on the filmmaker’s boyhood). The final shot of The 400 Blows, though oft-imitated, maintains its haunting lyricism and narrative power; it captures a journey that has, on one hand, ended, and on the other has barely begun.