I am a sucker for the coming-of-age subgenre. I mean, a sucker for the whole enchilada. From the sappy to the wildly ridiculous, I love it all (minus the “Porky’s”-era of teen sexploitations).
And I’ll tell you why: the genre alone cannot be defined by some common tropes. It’s so broad that anything goes.
If you had to pin down a couple, the most obvious would be 1) a narrative implicitly or explicitly centered on personal growth and 2) the protagonist’s age. However, all movies in one way or another tackle growth.
After all, cinema is essentially a visual medium for communicating mental, physical and emotional change, no? I dare you to name a film where the protagonist and supporting characters don’t arc.
I’m waiting. …
Now, for the latter, have you ever heard of “The Graduate”? “Eighth Grade”? “Real Women Have Curves”? They are all coming-of-age films … with protagonists of varied ages.
Now, it’s easy to swoon at the John Hughes films and think to yourself, “They don’t make them like that anymore …” But I’m a forward-thinker. What are the seminal coming-of-age films from this century that are on my must-watch list for future generations? I can name a few.
“Funny Ha Ha” (Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
This film actually isn’t that funny. Ha Ha (but no, seriously). Often cited as the “Godfather of Mumblecore,” Bujalski wrote about and shot post-grad life for what it is: unrefined and just a bunch of mumbo jumbo (hence, mumblecore). “Funny Ha Ha” follows a twentysomething woman trying to navigate the awkwardly painful transition from student to professional while limiting her alcohol consumption and interactions with her crush. Spoiler alert: nearly half of the film’s dialogue consists of “um,” “like,” and “fine.” Talk about realistic …
“Lords of Dogtown” (Catherine Hardwicke, 2005)
Similar to Hardwicke’s other feature films, “Twilight” and “Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown” is criminally underrated and nails teen angst to a tee. If “Lords” was directed by any other filmmaker (David Fincher and Fred Durst were reportedly attached at one point), I guarantee you this: it wouldn’t have been as introspective, raw and thrilling of a snapshot of the transition from boyhood to manhood. Based on his early years as an amateur (and eventually, professional) teen skateboarder in Santa Monica, California, Stacey Peralta’s screenplay tackles head on the trials and tribulations of breaking into professional skateboarding, reflecting the internal obstacles that adolescents everywhere face. Also, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Skip Engblom? An acting masterclass.
“Girlhood” (Céline Sciamma, 2014)
Run. Don’t walk. In “Girlhood,” shy teenager Marieme is notified by an academic counselor that she is no longer eligible to attend high school after failing three years in a row. Distraught, Marieme joins a girl gang and seeks shelter from real-world responsibilities. One word: Diamonds. The film’s dance sequence featuring Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is by far one of my favorite cinematic moments of all time. *Swoons* Who doesn’t love a Sciamma film?
“Edge of Seventeen” (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)
If you’re looking for a film in the vein of John Hughes, look no further than Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut (nominated for Best First Feature by several critics associations and honorary organizations). “Edge of Seventeen” follows Nadine, a 17-year-old high school junior, who has just about had it with everything: her best friend, family, school, and life itself. Talk about a riveting opening scene: Nadine alerts her teacher that she intends on killing herself. The film then backtracks and leads us through the events that spurred her declaration. Sounds dark right? Wrong. Cinematographer Doug Emmett keeps the camera close to Nadine and significantly more distant from the film’s supporting characters, conveying the protagonist’s strained relationships. Yet, Emmett imbues each frame with a pop of color … a sprinkle of hope.
Don’t be fooled by the title: “Honey Boy” is anything but sweet. As part of his rehabilitation program, Shia LaBeouf wrote a screenplay about his early years as a child actor and being the breadwinner for himself and his alcoholic father. The film offers glimpses of the protagonist’s adult life: rehab and endless demons. Leading up to its Sundance premiere, Har’el’s film was generating buzz due to LaBeouf’s willingness to not only write about his painful experiences, but step into the role of his abuser: his father. Bring. Tissues.
“Unpregnant” (Rachel Lee Goldenberg, 2020)
Whilst stirring controversy upon its release (duh, the title), “Unpregnant” delivers in tackling a taboo subject. The film adaptation of Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendrik’s novel of the same name follows straight-A student Veronica, who discovers while taking a pregnancy test at school that she is expecting. She additionally learns that she can’t trust anyone to take her to the abortion clinic in New Mexico … except her ex-best friend, Bailey. Chaos naturally ensues. While the title alone reveals the film’s primary storyline, I was particularly taken with the film’s in-depth exploration of Bailey’s personal development. As opposed to delegating Bailey to spunky sidekick, “Unpregnant” celebrates her and Veronica’s character arcs. Ah yes, the power of female friendships.
Miranda Montenegro a Mexican-American filmmaker. She is an El Centro resident, a graduate of Southwest High School, and a March 2020 graduate of University of California Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and concentration in Film, Television and Digital Media. Montenegro has interned at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Montecito Picture Company/Ghost Corps Inc., and Focus TV Network.