20. The Edge of Seventeen
One of the most empathetic depictions of teenage girlhood in recent memory, The Edge of Seventeen is a sweetly funny portrait of high schooler Nadine (an exemplary Hailee Steinfeld) as she awkwardly fumbles her way through junior year. Betrayed by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), misunderstood by her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), and completely disgusted by her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine finds solace in a strange new friend Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and wry teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). The film nails a stark reality for many of us: that our most meaningful relationships often necessarily, albeit painfully, shed their skin. But The Edge of Seventeen knows that, even in moments when we tire of living in our own bodies, we can find things to love about ourselves, and others will love us in return. (Jenna Benchetrit)
To some people, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Juno is a novelty, an exercise in quirkiness that’s more about an aesthetic than it is about teen pregnancy. But listen: Juno is not for those people. Juno’s for the weirdos, the young folks who are “too much,” the teens who live by the currency of pop culture interests, wallpapering their room in collages and using slang that only makes sense to their friends. In a pre-Tumblr world, Juno gave the teenagers watching it permission to be their clever, vibrant, niche selves in a world that often imagines young women in a much less complicated way.
Our hero, Juno (Ellen Page) is a pregnant teen with a hamburger phone and good taste in punk music. By the film’s end, she’ll have learned her own lesson after dabbling in friendship with the potential adoptive father of her baby, Mark (Jason Bateman). Sometimes signifiers of cool aren’t enough to put two people on the same page, and sometimes “mature for one’s age” doesn’t actually mean grown-up. Luckily for Juno, this is a heightened version of reality, so she can recover from the life-changing ordeal of teen pregnancy with her own coolness intact and her trust in the world only slightly dented. Cue The Moldy Peaches. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
18. 35 Shots of Rum
To say that Claire Denis cares about coming-of-age narratives is like saying the French care about wine. Duh. Plus, we all do, so what makes her so special? Well, like all true masters, Denis is keenly aware of how malleable the narrative is; how it can be shaped and transformed, stripped down to its bare bones and rebuilt; a formation that is itself about growth. Her semi-autobiographical debut feature, Chocolat, depicts the unreliable memories of a young woman raised in colonial Africa. Her whip-smart, underseen gem US Go Home presents a frank chronicle of teenage exploits on the outskirts of Paris. This might be unconventional, but what is Let The Sunshine In if not a study of the adolescent struggles with identity and relationships that can linger long into adulthood if not faced head-on?
But Denis’s various coming-of-age narratives are all bested by the film that might be her magnum opus: 35 Shots of Rum. The film follows a working-class father, played by longtime Denis collaborator Alex Descas, and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop, whose 2019 directorial debut feature Atlantics is itself a divinely haunting and near-perfect coming of age film). As Josephine grows up and faces the complexities of life outside of her father’s sphere, she navigates the problem of growth: how they pull her into a new world and force her to leave behind an old one. Tender and understated, the film addresses the simple (but not simplistic) trouble of maturity, and of needing to break free from former bonds in order to become your own person. Likewise, Descas, whose nuanced performance is remarkably attuned to Denis’s impulses, offers a beautifully human portrayal of the bittersweet process that is watching one generation grow while your own cohort is in decline. This is a film about knowing what is inevitable but maybe not knowing how to face it. A portrait of not only coming of age but of becoming, at any age. (Meg Shields)
17. 20th Century Women
A masterclass in asking great questions, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is a meditative coming-of-age clusterfuck. Through a traditional lens, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and Julie (Elle Fanning) are our subjects—best friend teens constantly on the cusp of imploding because of Jamie’s unshared love. They lie still on Jamie’s bed, asking each other about every curious teen topic they can think to ask about: regret, dating, the legitimacy of sadness, orgasms, age, guys vs. girls, etc. But, 20th Century Women is special because it serves as a sort of coming-of-age for all ages. It’s less about coming-of-a-particular-age and more about coming into one’s own and understanding yourself—learning how to live and love at every stage in life, whether you’re a twenty-something photographer with cancer, an ex-hippie carpenter bumming a room in the middle of a project, or a chic, indie single mother of one, er, four. (Luke Hicks)
16. Y Tu Mamá También
Y Tu Mamá También is not your typical road trip movie. Within the long takes of the Mexican countryside that passes by the windows of the four-door sedan is the quiet subtext that allows for each character to transform into a new person by the conclusion of the film. While the performances of Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as Julio and Tenoch are usually found at the center of the conversation, Maribel Verdú’s work as Luisa shows that you are never too old to ‘come of age.’
Luisa’s impulsive decision to tag along on a trip to the beach with two hormonal 18-year old “men” is evidence of her mental state at the beginning of the film. She is scared and unsure of her next move, feeling like a lonely child with no direction. Why not run away? This irrationality pays off as her metamorphosis throughout the film acts as a second adolescent period, a rediscovery of one’s self. I guess it also doesn’t hurt to have someone a bit more mature around to guide Julio and Tenoch as they open their eyes to the world around them for the first time. (Shea Vassar)
15. The Graduate
Post-grad malaise: it’s a real thing. Who are you once you’ve finished college, especially when finishing college was the only thing on your mind for the past few years? This belated coming-of-age crisis is hitting Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) hard when we meet him in The Graduate. Maybe he wants to sit in a pool all day. Maybe he wants to start a sordid affair with an older friend of his parents. For many people, the year after college ends is the time in which the concrete of adulthood begins to set, leaving recent graduates wiggling for freedom for as long as possible before the things they do start to feel permanent.
The Graduate is a textbook classic thanks to Mike Nichols’ direction, Robert Surtees’ cinematography, Hoffman’s performance (along with Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross’ Elaine), and a seminal soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. The movie makes coming-of-age feel important, writ large, like the feelings of love Benjamin has—so quickly transferred from one woman to another—are the end-all, be-all of his life. By the time the credits roll around, so has adulthood, heavy as concrete. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
14. Breaking Away
When I think coming-of-age movies, the first— and best—that pops into my head is Peter Yates’ brilliant and pitch-perfect comedy from 1979. Four young men (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley) sit at its heart, all teens who’ve grown up in a college town with no prospects of their own, with a dreamer named Dave among them. He sees a world of opportunity fueled by his love for bicycle racing, and it’s that dream that sees a blossoming romance, a harsh truth about meeting your idols, and a rousing, cheer-worthy finale as these self-identified losers finally find self-respect and value in their accomplishments. The film bursts with life and joy captured in the friendships and Dave’s relationship with his parents. Breaking Away is the kind of film that puts a smile on your face in the opening minutes and sees it stay there through the end credits. It is cinema at its best. (Rob Hunter)
13. Call Me By Your Name
What better represents coming-of-age than lusty, piercing heartbreak? The loss of your first love is like the loss of a will to live, the cemented belief that your story would be the rare case of “The One” squashed by the cold hard probability of life working against you. Luca Guadagnino’s gay summer romance between a high schooler (Timothée Chalamet) and his dad’s grad student resident (Armie Hammer) is overflowing with the toils of life in youth—the experience of sexual shame expressed through the juices of a peach, the loss of friends in the wake of romance, the rampant insecurity that swelters in the heat of the summer. It’s so true to life it becomes easy to imagine yourself falling for someone in the hot Italian countryside in your teens. Like so many of the best coming-of-age films, Call Me by Your Name is peppered with reflective wisdom, this time from warm, intelligent adults and interior ruminations that speak volumes in silence. (Luke Hicks)
12. The Virgin Suicides
There’s a minute detail that lingers when I think of The Virgin Suicides. Above the doorway, in the house that confines the doomed Lisbon sisters, the number marking their address hangs just askew. It’s never the focal point of Sofia Coppola’s film, but often there, just out of focus in the background. A small, almost but not quite insignificant indicator of the troubles that exist in plain sight, unnoticed or unacknowledged by those who see them every day. How the number fell off its nail is unclear. Perhaps in an act of defiance, a door was slammed and shook the house. Perhaps time—unremarkable but unstoppable time—simply wore down the wood until the little metal figure marking this house’s place in the world toppled ever so slightly.
We, like the film’s narrators who speculate on what drove the teenage Lisbon sisters to take their own lives, will never know the truth. Nor will any of us know all of the intricate and overlooked details of what went on behind (or above) closed doors in the stifling environment of this suburban Michigan home. What Coppola leaves us with, in her startling debut coming-of-age film, is an understanding of just how little we can understand about these girls forever trapped in the amber of adolescence. The lives and motivations of her ill-fated heroines are a puzzle that can never fit perfectly no matter how much anyone might try to piece it together. Something always hangs askew. (Anna Swanson)
11. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
Before Peter Parker, teenagers in comics were mostly relegated as sidekicks in need of desperate education from their masters. Spider-Man brought value to the coming-of-age POV, and with that respect came a rush of cash. The kid found escape behind the mask, as often the punch em ups with Doc Ock or The Vulture were less stressful than the mounting pile of bills on Aunt May’s dinner table. Pick your poison: a pumpkin bomb or a chemistry pop quiz? No question. Give me your best shot, Gobbie.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes Peter B. Parker’s (Jake Johnson) journey into adulthood, where as many failures greet him as successes, but it keeps the one-time teenage hero from the brink of despair by introducing him to the next generation. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) faces several similar pains once cursed upon Parker, and in witnessing Miles’ refusal to bend to misery, Parker finds the courage that once sprung him into wall-crawling.
The film is Miles’ story. It works exceptionally as his coming-of-age adventure. However, growth doesn’t end at eighteen. On my last Spider-Verse watch, I was struck by how much the bitter thirty-something needs the youngster. Peter B. Parker is coming into his age as well. He needs all the help he can get from Miles, Peter Porker (John Mulaney), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and the rest. Youth generally makes it through to the other side whether they want to or not, but often it’s the adults who find themselves trapped in a rut. The past is not your regret. The past is your hope. Find your energy and your purpose in the young. (Brad Gullickson)