15 All-Time Best Coming of Age Films

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August 8th, 2010

In the words of Ben Folds, "Everybody knows it sucks to grow up." Getting older is usually a painful process for everyone, which is why the best coming-of-age stories have a universal appeal. The characters in these movies, from college students down to young teens, find themselves faced with major life changes and big decisions. If you ever want to remember what it was like to be young, grow up, or not even know what to do, give these films a spin.

  1. Almost Famous: Writer-director Cameron Crowe spent part of his teenage years writing for Rolling Stone, and he uses those experiences in this bittersweet comedy about a kid named William Miller (Patrick Fugit) who lucks his way into writing for the magazine and traveling the country with the (fictional) rock group Stillwater. Some of the best moments come when he's surrounded by the others and glimpses just how much growing he still has to do.
  2. The Breakfast Club: John Hughes' movies pretty much defined a generation, so much so that he actually appears twice on this list. The Breakfast Club is a pretty heavy melodrama about five different high schoolers forced to spend a Saturday together in detention, and along the way they open up to each other and figure out that they're all going through a personal version of hell in the halls of public education. Awesome soundtrack, instantly dated lingo ("neo maxi zoom dweebie"), and the rise of the Brat Pack. It doesn't get much better.
  3. Good Will Hunting: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had been making movies for a while before 1997's Good Will Hunting boosted them to a new level. Damon plays Will Hunting, a college-age dropout and genius who refuses to apply himself or take real risks in his relationships. With the help of a therapist (Robin Williams, in a role that won him an Oscar), Will learns what it means to grow up as he finally decides to start living life instead of watching it go by.
  4. Diner: A lot of Barry Levinson's films are set in Baltimore, but the first one of the bunch was Diner, a nostalgic look back at a group of young men in 1959 who reunite for a wedding and find themselves grappling with major life events. Even though the characters are older than those in a typical coming-of-age story, the film still fits in the genre for the way it charts their emotional growth and decisions to finally become the adults they've refused to be.
  5. The Graduate: Mike Nichols' 1967 film is a classic of American moviemaking and one of those that marked the beginning of New Hollywood. Dustin Hoffman plays a recent college grad who coasts through an affair with an older woman and a relationship with her daughter, reflecting the generation's break with their elders and the unwillingness to jump into a career right after college. He winds up wiser, but maybe not smarter.
  6. The Wackness: Set in New York City during the summer of 1994, The Wackness mixes comedy and heartbreak to wonderful effect in a story about a high school grad who spends the summer selling pot to make money for his future, all the while falling love for the first time. The soundtrack is packed with classic hip-hop from the era.
  7. The Outsiders: "Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold." This 1983 cheesy but earnest coming-of-age movie revolves around the conflict between rich and poor gangs in 1965 Oklahoma. It's a who's who of 1980s actors, with a cast including Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and the inimitable C. Thomas Howell before the misstep of Soul Man. Based on the classic book by S.E. Hinton.
  8. Stand By Me: Based on Stephen King's novella The Body, Rob Reiner's 1986 film follows four young boys who bond during a trek through the woods to find the dead body of a kid who went missing. Along the way, they confront death, loneliness, and a pack of older bullies. It helped boost the young careers of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell, and Corey Feldman, all of whom are convincing in their roles. A heartbreaking but nostalgic look at a transitional time of life.
  9. The Virgin Suicides: Sofia Coppola's directorial debut is a haunting story about five teenage girls growing up in a middle-class but emotionally crippling home, who all choose death over their present unhappiness. The film is a painfully real look at high school and puberty seen through the lives of enigmatic young women and the boys who become obsessed with them.
  10. The Last Picture Show: A complete classic. Jeff Bridges (in his first movie) and Timothy Bottoms are a pair of high school seniors in small-town Texas in 1951, and the film charts their lives over the course of a year as they gradually lose their innocence and become broken by the world around them. Based on Larry McMurtry's novel.
  11. Juno: Writer Diablo Cody's unique way with dialogue ("This is one doodle that can't be un-did, homeskillet.") is only part of what makes Juno great; the rest comes from the warmth and emotion and offbeat humor about a teenage girl who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby and give it to an adoptive couple. Sweet, funny, and worth seeing.
  12. The Man in the Moon: Reese Witherspoon made her debut in this touching 1991 drama about a 14-year-old girl in love with an older boy in 1950s Louisiana. Definitely a tearjerker.
  13. Sixteen Candles: The final scene has been endlessly parodied, and with good reason: This John Hughes classic is a hilarious, endearing look at teendom, told over the course of a day in the life of Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald). Anthony Michael Hall is a fantastic geek, too.
  14. American Graffiti: George Lucas' loving ode to 1962 is jammed with great music, but it's also a poignant look at the decisions everyone has to face when it's time to move away from home. Don't let the director's later works (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?) make you miss this one.
  15. My Girl: There are two types of people: those who cried during My Girl, and liars. This tender dramedy from 1991 stars Anna Chlumsky is an 11-year-old tomboy whose mother died giving birth to her and who's never quite gotten over the loss. She and her best friend (Macaulay Culkin) spend the summer of 1972 learning about life and love in one of the most genuine movies ever made about the onset of adolescence.

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