The coming-of-age genre has always been an exciting framework through which some of the more fruitful and engaging stories of any given year are told. But those stories also shed some light and visibility upon a section of people that too many films often get wrong or simply don’t care for: the young. Youth is a complex time in one’s life and deserves complex deconstruction that embraces the humor, awkwardness and explicitness that comes with it. And in the past few years, the genre has exploded with landmark tale after landmark tale. From a fantastical take such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom to the literal interpretation of the genre with Boyhood, coming-of-age has been a playground, both literally and figuratively, of the utmost profundity.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Spider-Man: Homecoming truly does wear its John Hughes inspiration on its sleeve, but in a way that feels so right and so natural to the character of Peter Parker. More than most superhero films, Homecoming focuses on youth and what a young teenager might look like as he deals with the responsibilities both of high school as well as of being a hero. The journey is truly about Parker realizing that he has to pass his classes and that he should be having fun with friends, a mindset through which he may realize that, as a hero, he can’t do everything, especially everything that an older hero like Tony Stark can. The film never sacrifices that notion, ending on the perfect note. Director Jon Watts also not only embraces those subjects, but injects the verve of adolescence into the energy of the film itself — the pacing is dynamic and the tone is always genuine, sweet, hilarious and fun. Spider-Man: Homecoming is inarguably a coming-of-age film and a superhero film.
— Kyle Kizu
9. 20th Century Women
What’s so striking about Mike Mill’s 20th Century Women is that it not only crafts a coming-of age-story specific to the 1970s, but that it also deftly handles multiple characters’ journeys. Focusing on a post-Vietnam age, with the hippie movement almost in full force in California, the film places topics of gender, sexuality and individuality at the forefront, which, with a plethora of youthful characters, means some tensions on those fronts. Yet, the film is never exploitive nor indulgent, instead bringing an authenticity and agency to the young women, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig’s characters, and intertwining all of their journeys to lead to a particularly poignant and tranquil end.
— Kyle Kizu
8. American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold, American Honey finds a balance between a road movie and a coming-of-age tale, both of which show a part of America rarely seen on the big screen. Detailing the poverty that strikes much of the midwest and southern parts of the United States, American Honey is not a traditional coming-of-age story where someone finds themselves at the end. Instead, the film is about people, especially young people, who are lost in the world. Through Sasha Lane’s star-making turn as the lost Star, the audience embarks on a journey of forgotten and disrespected millennials, guided by a traveling sales crew leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf’s best performance yet). What the millennials are selling to unsuspecting buyers might be fake, but the honest portrait of teenagers unsure of who they are in this world couldn’t be more real.
— Levi Hill
7. Moonrise Kingdom
While it can be argued that every Wes Anderson movie is a coming-of-age story (even for the middle age sort), Moonrise Kingdom takes its spot next to Rushmore as one of the most idiosyncratic, but beautifully crafted coming-of-age films. The film, in a way that only Anderson can, takes the feelings of first-love and creates a relatable, if unrealistic tale about a community chasing after two young eloping lovers (Kaya Hayward and Jared Gilman). Throw in a starry cast including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton, a wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat, the typically gorgeous production design found in an Anderson film and a story about how love comes in many shapes and age groups, and Moonrise Kingdom is a whimsical and delightful coming-of-age story.
— Levi Hill
Dope is refreshing in many ways, not the least that it gives its coming-of-age trappings an unique point of view. Relying on a star-making turn from Shameik Moore, Dope’s main success comes from its ability to subvert stereotypes. Unlike most Hollywood produced coming-of-age stories, Dope is strictly about an intelligent, young African American high school student as he juggles college applications, the SAT and academic interviews — all in the hopes of getting into Harvard. Even when it turns into a fast-paced caper film of Malcolm (Moore) being in the wrong place at the wrong time — explicitly opening dialogue around urban Black stereotypes and such — writer-director Rick Famuyiwa refreshingly plays against expectations. Malcolm is a brilliant, quick-witted, handsome young man and he’s not going to let society tell him differently. Because of this, Dope stands apart from 95% of modern-day youth stories.
— Levi Hill
5. The Edge of Seventeen
Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, The Edge of Seventeen, is vibrant, hilarious, truthful and different. The film overcomes its potential genre pitfalls by embracing the bluntness of its main character Nadine (an outstanding Hailee Steinfeld). While Nadine may be shy among strangers, the film itself, with pitch perfect editing, writing and performances from its ensemble, tackles high school life with a similar head-on strength that she shows when among friends. Whether it be through typical high school hijinx, through the oddly specific situation of Nadine’s best friend dating her brother and through the grief in all of Nadine’s family after her father’s death, The Edge of Seventeen takes youth seriously both in its fun and its struggles, realizing that every side of youth is intertwined.
— Kyle Kizu
Moonlight is a singular coming-of-age tale. While it may explore sexuality and individuality as many other films do, the way in which those aspects are understood and the particulars of those aspects, that this is a story about a gay Black man, stand apart. Structured almost like a play in three literal acts (it was based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), Moonlight crafts a story that’s both quiet and pulsating, as it’s in the silence, in the soft glances and pained reactions, where the film says most. It allows us to absorb, through its cinematography, its breezy sound design, its unbelievable performances and more, the complex pains of a young boy/young man, Chiron, constantly having to reconcile himself with his city, his family, his community and himself when all seem to actively work to suppress. The film is simultaneously about Chiron understanding his sexuality and about him understanding his masculinity. We see him hide behind masks throughout, but we also see him yearn to be himself, which renders his quiet vocalization of truth at the end, to the one man he loved, so utterly powerful.
— Kyle Kizu
3. Lady Bird
More so than maybe any film on this list, there’s a universal specificity to what Lady Bird accomplishes. All coming-of-age stories are deeply personal, as they chart (typically) an individual’s realization of their own personhood — who they are going to be in this world. But Lady Bird doubles down on this, acting as a photo album of a year (a senior year in high school) for Christine “Lady Bird” Mcpherson (Saoirse Ronan) in the sleepy town of Sacramento, California. Within this year, she dates some boys, meets new friends, joins theater, leaves theater, loses her virginity, learns of her dad’s depression, gets accepted to a college 3000 miles away and argues with her domineering, but ultimately caring mother (the Oscar-worthy Laurie Metcalf). While some of this may sound sad, or almost too specific, writer-director Greta Gerwig makes sure that this personal story is filled with grace and warmth. Whether in a small scene of her father giving Lady Bird a cupcake on her birthday morning, or when she crushes on a boy at a garage show, or when she argues with her mother about if she should just go to the nearby UC Davis rather than a school in New York, Lady Bird captures that very important year in all of our lives with more authenticity than nearly any other film.
— Levi Hill
Boyhood is a landmark film for a multitude of reasons. While the 12-years-in-the-making component is one of the first — if not the first — for a fictional feature, it’s how the story reconciles these 12 passing years. Using the same actors, with most of the same locations, writer-director Richard Linklater wisely focuses on how time, and thus age, affects us all. In a literal sense of coming-of-age, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) go from childhood to the fringe of adulthood. Linklater never magnifies the scale more than exactly what time gives us. Instead, for nearly three hours, the audience is asked to quietly ruminate on life experiences. To split time between divorced parents. To watch your mom go in a different career. To move from one city to the next. To make new friends. To have your first feelings of love. To smoking weed for the first time. To going off to college. In Boyhood, 12 years of a lived life happen, which create the most epic, yet intimate film on this list.
— Levi Hill
1. Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name is not just about the central relationship. Yes, it’s a stunningly tender portrait of two young men exploring their sexuality together, but it’s also a very raw look at two young men grappling with their individual insecurities and their inadequacy. And writer James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino accomplish this through their focus on the quiet, minute, almost untraceably intimate moments that end up building to something so tangible and real.
The actors adopt this method, finding truth in every aspect of their performance. Timothée Chalamet, as Elio, is a revelation, evoking playfulness, but behind a guarded exterior. We see the struggle Elio traverses in realizing his attraction to Armie Hammer’s character, Oliver, and — through Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s erotic cinematography — we’re guided along as he slowly opens up to the idea. Next to that, Hammer’s character is purposefully elusive, rendering the moments of contemplation, particularly one in a hotel room, all the more emotional.
And at the end, Call Me by Your Name unveils its coming-of-age narrative. Through Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, as Stuhlbarg delivers the most profound monologue of the year, we understand that Elio and Oliver helped each other be themselves and feel good about themselves. Stuhlbarg’s monologue emphasizes the difficult notion that, too often, we hide from our feelings, especially those of pain — and as Elio grows and becomes an adult, he has to make sure to feel even if it hurts.
— Kyle Kizu
Featured image via IFC Films.