First Film Friday post linked here [a breakdown of The Goonies, my favourite film].
In honour of everyone going back to school, this month’s Film Friday is a list of coming-of-age films I would teach if I was heading a module at University. I also have a Top Ten Tuesday post coming up next week in the same vein, only that one is books instead of films, although they are all under the same sort of ‘Lecture/Seminar’ breakdown!
I absolutely love coming-of-age films, and this is somewhat inspired by Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema episode he did on coming-of-age films for BBC Four.
Lecture/Seminar 1: An Introduction to Coming-of-Age films
The first film I knew I wanted to include is my personal favourite coming-of-age film: The Edge of Seventeen, a 2016 film directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and starring Hailee Steinfeld as high school Junior Nadine, who struggles through the breakdown of her only friendship, pursuing romance to fill the empty spaces, and family issues. I also thought a good film to introduce people to coming-of-age films is the 1990 film Mermaids, starring Cher as the mother of avid swimmer Kate [Christina Ricci] and religious teenager Charlotte [Winona Ryder]. While a comedy, it has its fair share of heartbreaking moments and is very realistic in showing the breakdown of family and the truth of romantic relationships and first loves.
I thought these two would be best because they introduce some of the key features of a coming-of-age film- the struggling of a main teenage character [Nadine and Charlotte] as intense change enters their lives, forcing them to confront not only the people they hold close to them, but themselves as well.
Lecture/Seminar 2: Young Adults Are Sexually Active, Actually
I’m so proud of this title, you have no idea. Sex positivity is something that’s really important for me to see in the media I consume, as if it’s portrayed badly, it’s really bad- how many coming-of-age films do you watch where girls are shamed for being sexually active, called sluts by main characters for doing the exact same thing guys their age are doing as well? Yeah. It sucks. As someone who loves Slasher films, I’m exposed to those tropes a lot.
But there are some films I think are great at breaking down those tropes. Juno, a 2007 film directed by Jason Reitman and starring Ellen Page as teenager Juno, who becomes pregnant the first time she has sex and starts going through the adoption process; But I’m A Cheerleader, an LGBT+ film starring Natasha Lyonne as Megan, who is forced to a conversion camp and begins to develop feelings for roommate Graham [Clea DuVall]; and 1987 film Dirty Dancing, following 17 year old Baby as she strikes up a relationship with a dancer working at the resort her family are spending the Summer at [played by Patrick Swayze].
All of these films are sex positive and challenge the way we look at sexuality. There’s a teen girl who ends up pregnant with no regrets about ever having sex; a lesbian girl pursuing her sexuality with a very happy ending; and a girl who confronts class and the treatment of women as she pursues a secret sexual relationship that liberates her from the labels pushed on her by family members and society.
Lecture/Seminar 3: Identity and Belonging
In a way, all coming-of-age films address identity and belonging in some capacity. However, some of them focus solely on this- the way society forces labels and identities onto teenagers, and how teenagers are reprimanded for ever going against what they expect. As someone who has somewhat-rebelled against the expectations of other people since going off to University, these kinds of films can hit home the most.
We’ll start with a classic: The Breakfast Club directed by John Hughes. It’s a classic for a reason- a weekend detention forces 5 very different teenagers to confront their own prejudices against one another, all the while showing in small, nuanced ways that they never really belonged under these labels. There’s Moonlight, following Chiron in three defining chapters of his life as he tries to answer the defining question of his life- Who is he?- while dealing with his mother’s drug addiction, an attraction to his childhood friend, and bullying he faces at the hands of his classmates. I also really love Stand By Me, based off of the novella The Body by Stephen King, where four boys follow the train tracks to find the body of a boy their age hit by a train. One of my favourite film moments of all time is in this film, where Chris [played by River Phoenix] breaks down when talking to Gordie [Wil Wheaton] about how the way he’s seen as bad by the town just based on the reputation of his alcoholic family, despite being kind and caring himself.
Lecture/Seminar 4: Suffering and Grief
It’s already incredibly easy to make me cry at films, so when your favourite type of film is one that focuses on forming real connections with characters suffering through the pains of life and loss of family members? I’m a wreck the whole time. This would be a lecture that would make me tear up more than once, breaking down how fundamental it is to show these characters dealing with loss and the grieving process.
One of my favourite films of all time is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, based on the book [which I don’t really recommend, sorry] and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It follows teenager Greg, who has one best friend [Earl] and is somewhat of a loner outside of that one friendship. However, he reconnects with childhood friend Rachel after she is diagnosed with cancer, and there begins one of the most heartbreaking movies I’ve ever watched. What you think happens, happens, but it’s so so worth it regardless. I analysed this film in my A2 Level film paper for emotional response and cried everytime I had to re-watch one of the final scenes in Rachel’s room.
Dealing with similar material is The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone and based on the book by John Green [which I love, no shame]. It stars Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager who falls in love with another cancer patient Augustus Waters at a cancer support group. If you can get past its pretentious moments, it’s a really nice movie, and absolutely tragic. Nat Wolff has some of the best moments as Isaac, Augustus’s best friend who is losing his eye sight.
Lecture/Seminar 5: Mental Health
If you ever meet a university student who isn’t suffering from some degree of stress/mental health issue, know they are a rare breed. As someone who suffers from anxiety, mental health in the media I consume is as important to me as seeing sexuality representation. There are some very questionable portrayals of mental health in film [horror films especially are a different breed] but I find that coming-of-age films that dedicate to mental health tend to be very real and honest.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower directed by Stephen Chbosky [also the author] is about Charlie, a wallflower suffering from PTSD, which manifests itself as anxiety and depression as a result, who finds himself pulled into a group of seniors who show him a brand new way of living. This film deals with very upsetting material, but is incredibly important as a coming-of-age film that shows the accuracy of a teenager’s struggle with mental health, and the novel is in my other list [spoilers].
There’s also It’s Kind of a Funny Story, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which is the first film I ever watched with a focus on mental health. Based on the book by Ned Vizinni [also in my book list], it follows teenager Craig after he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital due to suicidal thoughts and experimenting with drugs. A lot of the characters and events of the film and novel were inspired by Vizinni’s own time spent in a psychiatric hospital, and the work he did there as he grew older. Unfortunately Ned Vizinni committed suicide several years ago, but his work will always be incredibly important to me due to how it exposed me to mental health issues.
Lecture/Seminar 6: The Horror of Growing Up
So many elements of growing up are horrible enough- extreme emotional loss, being humiliated by peers and teachers, falling out with friends, everything about secondary school school uniforms. But when you add in actual horror to coming-of-age films? Where kids are both killed and doing the killing? Somehow, falling over in front of an entire assembly hall [been there, done that] or being laughed at during your big choir solo [hello, crippling performance issues!] don’t seem as extreme anymore.
My favourite film of 2017 was coming-of-age horror movie IT, directed by Andy Muschietti and based off of the book by Stephen King. Seven kids are forced through horror after horror as they are terrorised by a dangerous entity that manifests as a clown, while also facing up to abusive parents, bullying, and issues within their own friendships. The kids suffer in this film, have no doubt in that, but so much of their fears are rooted in real things, and there’s so much to explore when it comes to how adults are portrayed in contrast to child characters, in a lot of King’s works.
Less coming-of-age horror, more dark coming-of-age murder rampage, Heathers is an 80s film that stars Winona Ryder as Veronica, who is drawn into a world of vicious bullying and harassment, humiliation and murder, all the while trying to survive high school and make it to college in one piece. Basically none of these characters are likeable, suicide is romanticised by teachers, and things that should be at the forefront [date rape, the murders themselves] are laughed at or pushed to the back by characters, proving to be a grim social commentary that leaves you feeling icky even when the credits are rolling. It’s a dark one that exposes a lot of things that a lot of coming-of-age films still shy away from tackling, and I think it’s important for doing that.
[Honorable mentions: The Lost Boys; The Way Way Back; Carrie; Beautiful Things; Get Real; A Monster Calls; Boyhood; Bend It Like Beckham; The Outsiders]
And that’s my post! Nearly 2000 words, good lord. I really hope that you enjoyed this, and I’d love to chat about these films even more in the comments! If you have any recommendations for coming-of-age films you think would fit these categories, I’d love to know them.
Thank you for reading!