With the upcoming release of James Ponsoldt’s incredible film The Spectacular Now it was time for a Top 10 of our favorite coming-of-age films. Ah the bildungsroman, there are so many to choose from, yet there can only be a handful of great ones, right?
I’ll be honest. This was a tough list to refine. I could have easily expanded it to a Top 50, but with some painful and very strict editing I got it down to 10.
My guidelines were such:
It had to be teens or younger. This meant that some favorites, like The Graduate, Harold and Maude, or Chariots of Fire could not make the list.
I tended away from overly sentimental or nostalgia films, which platooned American Graffiti, My Dog Skip and Almost Famous. I just felt that the gushing sentimentality or overt nostalgia eased the painful aspects of the childhood-to-adulthood transition in a way that made it ring a tad false. Believe me, none of these were easy decisions.
Finally, I stuck to dramas. Genre-benders and comedies fell off the list. No Sixteen Candles, no Let the Right One In, no The Lost Boys and no Edward Scissorhands. What I was looking for was something with the raw edges of childhood and the unbending lessons of adulthood. It had to offer the growing pains with only the occasional chuckle to ease the hurt.
All of the following films could pretty easily make the number one spot on another list and I’m still not completely settled on my order, but I’m excited to get the conversation started. I’m eager to hear about your lists or films I may have overlooked and would love it if you’d share them below in the comments.
10. The Breakfast Club (1985)
I’m all for John Hughes, and grew up with Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Weird Science as some of my childhood favorites. But Hughes always seemed to protect his characters a little too much. He needed to give them what they wanted, and it sometimes felt like he was rewriting his own adolescence in a more positive light.
The one exception is The Breakfast Club. Each character gets scrutinized, broken down and critiqued before forming new friendships within this small group. The thing I love about The Breakfast Club, is one can be either hopeful about these newly formed friendships, or could believe that this was a passing Saturday and all will go back to “normal” on Monday. This ambiguity makes The Breakfast Club list worthy.
9. The Sandlot (1993)
A kid in a new town, learning the social hierarchies and how to play his favorite sport – it’s something that most of us know from one side of this story or the other.
The Sandlot is about young friendships, the competitive nature of being friends within a small group, the mythologies that we build as children, and how many of our assumptions change as we learn adult truths and troubling lessons. Sometimes life gets richer, more interesting, and much better.
If you’ve been avoiding this one because it’s a baseball movie, then you’ve been making a big mistake.
8. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Why do you have to be so mean Todd Solondz? Because junior high school sucks, that’s why.
Welcome to the Dollhouse is only funny, because if you don’t laugh you’ll just end up crying. Heather Matarazzo as the awkward and overlooked Dawn Weiner couldn’t be more tragic and true. The only consolation offered in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the fact that in high school at least kids are not mean to your face, is crushing and something that many of us can understand.
Don’t worry. Adulthood is better. People are less honest with you as adults.
7. Stand By Me (1986)
From 1984 to 1992 Rob Reiner could not be denied. This is Spinal Tap to A Few Good Men with Misery and The Princess Bride sprinkled in there, Rob Reiner was tearing it up.
Right in the middle of this eight-year span came the story of four boys who just want to go and see a dead body.
The curiosity of youth, the reality of the discovery and how life changes after you get exactly what you were looking for, all feel authentic. The embellished stories that Vern, Chris, Gordie and Teddy tell each other on their journey have forever seared Chopper and his affinity for balls or Lard-ass and his barf-o-rama into our brains.
For a film from the mid 1980s, this one feels pretty timeless.
6. My Life as a Dog (1985)
Lasse Hallström went oh so wrong in his later offerings, but in 1985 he made one heck of a coming-of-age film. My Life as a Dog is the story of Ingemar who is sent to live with family while his ailing mother recovers.
Such a stark look at burgeoning sexuality, our family dynamics, and how we each come to understand loss make My Life as a Dog one of my all time favorites. It shows the awkwardness of youth and just how beautiful it is.
5. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Ugly divorces have become a staple of adolescence. Noah Baumbach puts us right in the middle of one of the nastiest divorces in The Squid and the Whale. Frank and Walt must navigate their parents while trying to figure out how to be adults themselves.
By looking into the lives of these two brothers, we get the best (worst) of both high school and junior high. The crisis comes without a solution, because how can we ever solve our parents?
4. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Those who know me understand that it is rare that I rave about Steven Spielberg. Get ready, because this is one of those times.
When David Lean couldn’t figure out how to adapt the novel Empire of the Sun into a film, Spielberg asked to take a crack at it. The story takes place during World War II and focuses on Jamie Graham (Christian Bale), a young British boy in China who gets separated from his parents and forced into an internment camp after the Japanese invade.
The terror and loss of youth is amplified because of the war that surrounds Jamie. Empire of the Sun is a profound and complicated film, that is shamefully overlooked. It is easily one of Spielberg’s best.
3. The Outsiders (1983)
Holy crap. Just look at this cast, and then mix in a Francis Ford Coppola that hadn’t yet lost his edge – could you go wrong?
When we talk about films like Romeo + Juliet, or even West Side Story each of them seem to shine a little less brightly than The Outsiders with Johnny and Pony Boy hiding out and saving people from a burning building.
Only a teenager can be both a hero and a criminal with such ease. The Outsiders gave us the lines “Let’s do it for Johnny” and “Stay gold, Pony Boy.” For those who have seen the film these lines come with the weight of their intent – Johnny’s short life, Dallas’ lust for revenge and meaning, and Pony Boy’s wonder at the world around him.
What a great film.
2. Last Picture Show (1971)
Peter Bogdanovich did something remarkable when he made The Last Picture Show. He not only told us the story of Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) as they grew from children to adults, but he gave us the consequences of this transition.
The adults in this small town, Lois (Ellen Burstyn), Sam (Ben Johnson), and Ruth (Cloris Leachman), all look back at their youth with sorrow and regret. It is the interaction between the two groups that makes the move to adulthood all the more poignant.
And of course Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman give two performances that actors dream of. They are brutal, raw, understated and real. One cannot overstate or oversell these two actors in the roles of Ruth Popper or Sam the Lion. They are just two of the best characters ever put on the big screen.
Without Ruth and Sam as foils to the teens, the loss of innocence doesn’t come at so severe a cost.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
This film goes to the top of my list, because in some ways it has influenced every other coming-of-age drama that came after it. It also took a great novel and adapted it into an even better film.
Gregory Peck’s stoic performance of Atticus Finch gives weight to the impossibility of his task at hand, and makes for an incredible counterpoint to Scout’s sensitive and naïve understanding.
Boo’s ghostly presence and Jem’s slightly more mature outlook both round out this marvelous tale of children who are only just beginning to understand the inequities of the world around them.