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Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Coming-of-Age Movies

During this summer season in which bombastic blockbusters about superheroes, zombies and giant robots abound, a few smaller movies of note have attempted to counterprogram against the cacophony. Two of the most acclaimed of these, ‘The Kings of Summer’ and ‘The Way, Way Back’, are coming-of-age stories about young teenagers trying to find their place in the world. This puts us in mind of some of our other favorite examples of the popular coming-of-age genre. Share your picks with us in today’s Roundtable.

Luke Hickman

Most coming-of-age films don’t appeal to me. All too often, they’re full of clichés. Very little of what happens to the youngster central characters is interesting to me. That’s why I love Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical approach to the dramatic sub-genre. ‘Almost Famous‘ features everything that I wish other coming-of-age films had: comedy, original characters (how awesome are the band members, not to mention William’s mom?), teenage angst (we’ve all had a Penny Lane in our lives at some point, right?), great music (both original and existing), memorable moments (does it get any greater than the “Tiny Dancer” or airport scenes?), a solid story (you can’t tell me that you wouldn’t want to tour with your favorite band), a fantastic screenplay (which earned an Academy Award), and perfect directing. There’s not a single Cameron Crowe film that I don’t love, but ‘Almost Famous’ carries an extra dose of greatness. Even better is Crowe’s “Untitled” Director’s Cut. If you haven’t seen or own that, I highly recommend it.

Mike Attebery

I believe McSweeney’s kills writers. That smug press encourages authors to produce twee little books that make me sick to my stomach. Worse yet, they occasionally do this with previously terrific writers. Nick Hornby is the perfect example. After he broke out with the memoir ‘Fever Pitch‘, he quickly followed that success with two of the most sublimely perfect novels ever: ‘High Fidelity‘ and ‘About a Boy‘. (Seriously, even if you’ve seen the movies, read the books. They’re the most refreshing bits of writing you’ll ever come across.) Unfortunately, Hornby then started churning out some truly abysmal garbage, the majority of it released by McSweeney’s. I think it’s pretty telling that the books mentioned above have all resulted in movies, while nothing he’s written since has been adapted for the screen.

The British ‘Fever Pitch’ was OK. ‘High Fidelity’ was brought to America yet retained every bit of its magic. And then there’s ‘About a Boy‘, which is just about the most perfect coming-of-age movie around. It’s witty, funny and dark. (A failed suicide attempt is a major turning point.) Better yet, this is really two coming-of-age stories, as it’s about both a young boy learning to stand on his own in the world, and a grown man finally realizing that it’s high time he acted liked a man. Hugh Grant has never been better. If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Go watch it, please.

Tom Landy

Whenever I hear the term “coming-of-age,” something in the back of my mind always whispers softly, “Do you want to go see a dead body?” That is then followed by, “I dropped… the comb.” Rob Reiner’s ‘Stand by Me‘, based on Stephen King’s novella ‘The Body’, will always be the epitome of coming-of-age movies for me. The story takes place during the 1950s and is about four teenage boys who set out on a journey to find and recover the remains of one of their peers. Their little walkabout, however, will end up changing them forever, and when they eventually return back home to Castle Rock, part of their childhoods will be left behind. Powerful, emotional and exceptionally funny, ‘Stand by Me’ is a fantastic film and one of the few that gets better with every viewing.

M. Enois Duarte

To this day, my favorite coming-of-age movie is John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club‘, which remains one of the best films about kids facing difficult challenges. I love that Hughes treats the fictional teens with respect rather than as stereotypical caricatures. The story is easily relatable to a wide audience because each kid represents that weird, mostly ridiculous social structure of your typical high school, and each is allowed a unique voice to express him- or herself to the world. The film has stood the test of time, and its success is proven by how it remains a popular watch among teens to this day.

Brian Hoss

Due to its still-provocative dynamics, ‘The Graduate‘ can be difficult to discuss. So often, the film is described in terms of the Mrs. Robinson character, which really robs the story of all its depth. Specifically, the movie is striking in its portrayal of Benjamin Braddock as a 21-year-old essentially becoming unstuck and directionless after obtaining one college degree. Even as he bounces around from one surreal situation to another, the entire plot remains grounded, funny and dramatic. Ultimately, however, while the plot reaches a resolution, several important institutions that are typical to growing-up or coming-of-age in the U.S. are called into question with an uncertainty that hits the characters in the last scene and sticks with viewers long after the film is finished.

Josh Zyber

We’re a bunch of male writers on this blog, so I suppose it stands to reason that most of our picks would focus on movies about boys coming of age. But there are plenty of movies about girls in this genre too, from ‘My Girl’ to ‘Clueless’ to ‘Juno’ and more. I guess that I’ll do what I can to break up this sausage-fest by highlighting director Todd Solondz’s breakthrough feature, the jet-black comedy ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse‘. This is one of those movies that can make me almost physically uncomfortable to watch, as its poor protagonist, the profoundly uncool Dawn “Wiener Dog” Wiener, suffers an ever-escalating series of personal humiliations at the hands of a cruel, godless world determined to beat her down. Yet for all the movie’s comic and satirical exaggeration, it gets to a real truth about the pre-teen psyche, which distorts every trauma, no matter how small, into a life-changing tragedy that will forever be seared into memory.

Some honorable mentions in no particular order: ‘Ghost World’, ‘Rushmore’, ‘An Education’, ‘The Professional’, ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Amarcord’, ‘My Life as a Dog’, ‘A Bronx Tale’, ‘Son of Rambow’, ‘Let the Right One In’ and its equally-good American remake ‘Let Me In’.

Whatever your gender, tell us about your favorite coming-of-age movies in the Comments.

24 comments

  1. Les

    Not sure if all of these classify as Coming of Age but maybe they fit the bill.

    Paradise w/Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, and a young Elijah Wood. Just a great movie, if you ask me.

    October Sky – Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern

    Something Evil This Way Comes – Jason Robards (Disney Movie)

  2. Pedram

    I’m not sure how well it depicts the whole “coming of age” thing since I don’t think the characters are quite teenagers, but I would totally thrown Goonies in there since it has the protagonists going on a quest/adventure and learning about responsibility and how to deal with danger etc.

    Even if it doesn’t fit, I don’t care because it’s a classic :)

  3. jvj

    Hey Mike,

    In Hornby – and McSweeney’s – defense, none of his fiction writing has been published by McSweeney’s. They do release compilations of his “what I’m reading” articles from their magazine The Believer, but we can probably agree no studio is clamoring to adapt those into a feature regardless of quality.

    Also, you might want to dig a little deeper into McSweeney’s releases, might help you shake the connotation that they’re all “twee little books”. They’ve published fantasy compilations with some great pieces by Stephen King and Michael Chabon. They also published filmmaker John Sayles’ historical epic A Moment in the Sun- a book that’s dense, ambitious, and probably as far from “twee” as you can get. Not to mention William Vollmann’s Rising Up, Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means.

    Heavy, classic stuff. So, you know…they’re not ONLY about clever book design and sardonic lists.

  4. skinnyb37

    Good choices! Although I’ll admit not having seen About a Boy yet…could add Superbad to the recent movies for this list. And, Josh, sad to say that even though I am a card-carrying member of the “sausage-fest club” (with the emphasis on member), the 1st two movies that popped into my head were Juno and Saved…

  5. Ryan

    I don’t know what my all time favorite is….but as far as recent movies go, Perks of Being A Wallflower was really really good. As was An Education.

  6. Ryan M

    I think Stand by Me is the factual epitome of a coming-of-age movie. I also love The Sandlot. Of more recent vintage, I consider Beasts of the Southern Wild a coming-of-age story, even though the girl is only supposed to be 5 years old.

  7. William Henley

    I got three that come to mind

    My Girl
    Little Women
    Now and Then

    Just realized that all three are pretty much movies about girls. :-(

    • William Henley

      I wonder if you could consider Lawn Dogs a coming of age movie. Good movie, difficult subject matter.

      In a stretch, you might be able to include Lolita – although you could also argue that she came of age before the events in movie / book. Kubrick’s version was great – it took a difficult subject matter and made a comedy about it. The 1997 remake was just hard to watch, and I doubt I will ever watch that version again.

      I saw in someone’s blog that they had listed The Secret Garden as a coming of age movie. Eh, I find that a stretch – I consider “coming of age” to be a genera of kids passing from childhood into adulthood, but The Secret Garden is really about kids discovering what it means to be kids (in my opinion). Great movie, and if you want to call it a “coming of age” movie, I will vote for this (both the Hallmark and the Warner Bros version).

      More recently, I LOVE The Secret Life of Bees.

      WORST coming of age movie that I think I have ever seen was Hound Dog. Man, was that movie BAD. I can’t think of a single redeeming quality.

  8. EM

    Stand by Me is the coming-of-age film I always think of first. I was in high school when it was released. So popular was it with my classmates that the eponymous song was voted our class song—not bad for what was already an oldie. I think that says something for the power of a movie to bring different generations together.

    Another, powerful coming-of-age picture—a classic that has become underrated, devolving into a sad joke about dogs rather than being experienced for what it is—is Old Yeller, a story of a boy and his dog and how the boy becomes a man through his love and responsibility toward that dog. It’s sad and it’s funny and it’s adventurous—they really don’t make movies like it anymore, and when they did they did so all too rarely.

    I also have a big soft spot for Matinee, Joe Dante’s tale of a teen who’s never found his place in the world because his family keeps moving all the time. They may actually be staying put for a while, and now he has to contend with friends, girls, his kid brother, the very odd world of adults (personified by a William Castle–like filmmaker played by John Goodman), a father in danger (he’s a sailor in one of the ships blockading the Soviet Union from importing nukes into Cuba), and quite possibly the end of the world. This film tends to be more breezy and lighthearted than my other picks, but its characters are true.

    I confess that, when comparing 2011’s Super 8 to movies of the ’70s–’80s era, I somehow never before made the connection to Stand by Me. Maybe that’s because Stand by Me is set in still earlier times, or because Super 8 is a horror and sci-fi film whereas Stand by Me is neither. But each of these films is a nostalgic coming-of-age story about a band of friends on a secret mission, with the focus character coming to terms with the recent premature death of a close family member, finding in his pain a strength that enables him to stand up to an antagonist and protect himself and his friends. And like Stand by Me, Super 8 manages to be funny and endearing along the way.

    I have a few more picks which probably are not generally considered coming-of-age films, but for which there’s a fair case. In Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is a young man struggling to find his place in the world (the galaxy…) amid trials and tribulations, including disappointment in his elders (to say the least), following which he seems to command a new maturity in Return of the Jedi. In Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster is a rebellious runaway child who finds both positive and negative role models and knows the pangs of first love. And in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it is ironic that Jim Kirk is battling the onset of old age (when not battling Khan), for emotionally he is still something of an adolescent who has managed to evade real responsibility (e.g., fatherhood, the fate of Khan’s colony) and the painful facts of life (death!) until they come bearing down on him. The Wrath of Khan is truly the coming of age of Kirk.

  9. Bryan

    I know some people toss it off as just another teen comedy, but to me Lucas is without a doubt my favorite coming of age movie. Similar to The Breakfast Club, I think it shows the characters more realistically than most films about teens. Add great performances from Corey Haim (and believe it or not)Charlie Sheen, and it’s one of the best movies of the ’80′s.

  10. EM

    I had considered even further ballooning my post above with mentions of E.T. and The Iron Giant, but I questioned whether they were really coming-of-age movies, as opposed to just dramatic movies about kids.

  11. Bryan

    Apparently somebody listened to me :)Lucas is coming out August 6th! Didn’t even realize it until I saw a link over at IMDB.

  12. BambooLounge

    Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic elementary school in New York (albeit a solid 20-30 years after the time period the movie is set), but I’ve always loved Heaven Help Us.

    It perfectly captured the way high school kids actually interact with each other. And it is one of the few coming of age movies that is fairly true to NY hs experiences. No jocks, cheerleaders, and other John Hughes suburban cliches/realities.