40. The Chocolate War
Robert Cormier’s novels don’t get talked about much these days even though the YA market has exploded in popularity, and it’s a damn shame. His books (including I Am the Cheese and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway) often blend genre beats with characters and stories remarkably attuned to the teenage experience. The Chocolate War follows a lonely teen named Jerry, still reeling from his mother’s death, who’s marked by the school’s secret society for a prank. With so much in his life out of his control, he makes a stand here that rocks the school—and Keith Gordon’s adaptation turns Jerry’s journey into a hauntingly beautiful coming-of-age tale brought to life with memorable imagery, raw power, and one of the best soundtracks from the 80s. The cast is eclectic including Ilan-Mitchell Smith, John Glover, Wallace Langham, Doug Hutchison, Jenny Wright, and Bud Cort, and it is unforgettable. (Rob Hunter)
Coming of age as a woman in 1970s Iran is not a story everyone can necessarily relate to. But Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical film Persepolis, based on her graphic memoirs of the same name, has an innate openness that welcomes understanding and empathy. Told from the perspective of a child who doesn’t (and then gradually begins to) understand the drastically changing world around her, Persepolis drives home the humanity and the dangerous absurdity of growing up in an overnight religious oligarchy. Young Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) wants to be a revolutionary, but she also wants to wear lipstick and listen to Michael Jackson. The fact that all three are punishable crimes blurs the line between acting out as a teenager and rebelling against an unjust government in heartbreaking and beautiful ways that anyone who’s ever grown up can recognize. (Liz Baessler)
The problem with trying to write about Clueless is I have no idea where to start. I could begin by saying it’s based on the Jane Austen novel Emma, or I could discuss how brilliantly writer/director Amy Heckerling’s script is at distilling teenagedom to its barest essences of selfishness and selflessness. But I would be skipping the most important contribution of the movie, which is when Christian (Justin Walker) asks Cher (Alicia Silverstone) if she likes Billie Holiday, and she replies “I love him.” Okay, no, seriously, Clueless is a wonderful film that delights in its excesses to craft a modern fairy-tale. Impeccably costumed and remarkably soundtracked, the film uses all the trappings of ‘90s Beverly Hills to the utmost to deliver a story so vivid it could have been your own memory.
As a coming-of-age film, Clueless might not appear to be particularly relatable based on the wealth of its characters, but all their little desperations reflect the high school experience well. The film uses an episodic structure that forgoes the classic three acts to mark a crucial point of adolescence. Clueless catalogs the moment where you don’t quite know who you’re going to turn into, but you have so much hope about who that person might be. All the romances within the film are portrayed in an unmistakably teenaged way, never too heavy, but deeply felt, and always a little ridiculous. Clueless is also engaged with its own place in film history, with characters like the aforementioned Christian representing the beginning of the coming-of-age genre with his rat-pack aesthetic. Some mistakenly think this film is as air-headed as its characters, but as if. Clueless knows exactly what it’s doing, in all of its glorious, pastiche-y brilliance. (Margaret Pereira)
37. 10 Things I Hate About You
In addition to being a gold-standard rom-com (where were you when you first saw Heath Ledger singing “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” across those bleachers?) 10 Things I Hate About You possesses a modern sensibility that helps it hold up as a touching coming-of-age narrative. Here, writers Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah ensure that unlike the Shakespeare play they adapted from, our protagonist Kat (Julia Stiles) isn’t strong-armed into sacrificing her bold sense of self in the name of garnering acceptance from her peers. Instead, Kat’s growth stems from the unexpected connections she develops throughout the film, between the mutual understanding that she reaches with her younger sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), to, of course, the romance that grows between her and Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona. If the fake-dating plot is any indication, Kat and her classmates simply discover you can only get so far pretending to be someone you’re not; in the end, it’s honesty that wins the day, an affirmation of self and an acceptance of those you might have once misunderstood. (Christina Smith)
36. Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki is known for his beautifully-animated works that often focus on the strength of young girls. He is not afraid of the perceived weakness of women; instead, he sees the heroic potential in them. His most poignant and beautiful film is Spirited Away where a young human girl named Chihiro must navigate the world of spirits to save her parents. She begins the film as a whiny child who would grate on anyone’s nerves. However, throughout Spirited Away, she blossoms. She discovers the strength she’s had all along through suffering river spirits, glutinous creatures, and greedy witches. Yes, she is afraid but she recognizes how to use that fear to help her save those around her.
Most coming-of-age stories take place in the human realm and have their young protagonists growing up in the face of “normal” human situations. But in Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Chihiro must be thrown into the world of the spirits to understand herself and the importance of courage. Spirited Away is a uniquely gorgeous story that utilizes Japan’s deep folkloric tradition to weave a powerful tale about the power contained in one young girl. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
When you’re fifteen, your parents’ house is a jail. You’d do anything to escape it. For Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), rescue comes in the form of that greaser Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen). He’s a war vet with a profile to beat James Dean’s. That’s enough for her. He says follow, and she jumps at the chance. Dad stands in the way, so he gets a bullet. It’s awful, but jailers get what’s coming to them.
Badlands is a beautiful bit of melancholy, filled with the most striking visuals shot through a seemingly pure and righteous light. Terrence Malick is one earnest dude who lulls his audience into a merciful state where they find hope for doomed characters. Holly and Kit were born to be wild, unfit for the constraints society would shackle upon them. (Brad Gullickson)
34. Harold and Maude
There are many comedies on this list, but, in the humble opinion of this writer, none are as riotous, original, or unexpected as Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby’s 1971 black comedy-drama-romance not only features a career-best performance by Ruth Gordon, but toys with story structure and audience expectations in a way that can only be described as heavenly. Starring Bud Cort as Harold, an 18-year-old obsessed with mortality and suicide, in particular, Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins build a love story around death which forever changes the young boy’s outlook on life.
It’s an oddly revolutionary film, one which fully upended the conventions of the romantic-comedy and made way for a whole new type of funny love story. It’s certainly a cynical film, but, just like its protagonist, it becomes surprisingly soft as it progresses. Cort and Gordon have remarkable chemistry together, bringing the best out of each other and transforming this quirky odd-couple into a pair to root for. (Cyrus Cohen)
33. Rebel Without a Cause
James Dean is known for his red-jacket wearing, cool-boy persona that he developed specifically for his role in Rebel Without a Cause. Somewhere between Marlon Brando and Elvis is Jim Stark, a confused, angsty teenager that becomes buddies with two other angsty teenagers, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). Together, these friends face social challenges including love, death, knife-fights, and car races.
The relationship between Jim and his parents is the catalyst for all the emotion within this 1955 feature. The disconnect becomes immediately clear in the opening scene at the police station. “You’re tearing me apart!” Jim yells as his parents disagree on how to handle their drunken delinquent son. Stuck in the middle is Jim, their lonely offspring that longs for stability. The movie might have been made 65 years ago, but the nihilistic views expressed throughout the runtime are relatable even today. (Shea Vassar)
Following up his critically acclaimed art-house hits I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, and Tom at the Farm was always going to be a challenge, but it’s one Xavier Dolan accepted and overcame. While all of his earlier narratives could be deemed coming-of-age films in one way or another, Mommy is arguably his most accessible and most appropriate for this list. While retaining his trademark sense of hyper-stylization, Dolan’s 2014 film is far more anchored in his characters’ emotions and subjectivity than his prior stories.
Following the mentally ill and occasionally violent Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) and his mother Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) in the not-too-distant future, Dolan introduces us to a world where troubled and poor children are swiftly hospitalized by parents unable to care for them. From the first moment it’s mentioned, it’s apparent that this policy will play a massive role in the dynamic between mother and son. While the film does trace Steve’s growth, the character who matures most is Die. Proving that it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf, Mommy is a powerful and challenging ode to maternal love, perfectly exemplified and tremendously aided by Dorval’s earth-shattering performance. (Cyrus Cohen)
31. The Tree of Life
One of the more dense, elusive, and ethereal films ever made, The Tree of Life is the most profound, expansive coming-of-age story you could imagine. It begins with the big bang and situates itself in the life of Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) in rural 1960s Texas. The middle-school-aged Jack wanders around like all curious kids, testing the dos and don’ts doled out by parents, teasing the limits of his conscience, and struggling to connect with any deeper truth or meaning. His hushed voiceovers—often whispered to God through pain—are inquisitive and desperate, representing that childlike part of us that yearns for answers, that part of us that typically gets quieter the more we think we know. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play his mother and father as much as they play the duality of Jack’s conscience: nature vs. grace. There’s a sweet spiritual and philosophical tone that blends effortlessly with the loose, languorous filming style that defines Terrence Malick’s singularity. Leave it to someone as brilliant as Malick to re-imagine the coming-of-age experience into a grand, unforgettable affirmation of life itself. (Luke Hicks)