Great Coming of Age Movies That You Should See at Least Once
What makes a coming-of-age movie great? This genre typically focuses on the transition from the teen years to adulthood, which — if we reach adulthood — we've all experienced. Coming-of-age films are inherently relatable for this very reason.
First loves, broken friendships (or conversely, life-long ones) and learning about ourselves and our place in the world are all best exemplified in the coming-of-age movies listed here — all of which we recommend you watch at least once.
10. Rebel Without a Cause
Year released: 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Actors: James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood
"Rebel Without a Cause" features the iconic James Dean as Jim Stark, a new-to-town troubled teen who quickly finds himself caught up in a world of angst, rebellion and violence — much to his parents' dismay. While his father attempts to understand him (but still doesn't) and his mother has already written him off, he's left to his own devices at school where he's immediately bullied by the cool crowd.
But Jim is not friendless — he bonds with two other misfits, Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood). Together, the teens struggle to find their place in life and search for meaning in a world that seems increasingly pointless.
9. The Last Picture Show
Year released: 1971
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Actors: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman
In 1951, in tiny Anarene, Texas, soon-to-be high school graduates Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson are best friends spending idle time chasing women and playing football. Duane is dating Jacy Farrow, the rich girl everyone wants, while Sonny is quietly having an affair with a local coach's lonely wife, Ruth.
As graduation nears, Sonny inherits a pool hall in Anarene, and Duane chooses to serve in the Korean War. As they begin to separate and start their transition to adulthood, they contemplate their futures as the town and the innocence they once knew begin to disappear.
8. American Graffiti
Year released: 1973
Director: George Lucas
Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Paul LeMat
George Lucas, of "Star Wars" fame, directed this film based on his younger years. "American Graffiti" takes place over one Saturday night in 1962 Modesto, California, and follows a group of high school graduates as they cruise the town's main drag before fate begins to separate them.
Curt Henderson is leaving for college and spends his last night in Modesto trying to track down a beautiful stranger who drives a white Thunderbird. His friend, Steve Bolander, is set to leave with him, but he has second thoughts about leaving his girlfriend Laurie behind.
Their friend, hot-rodder John Milner has no such college aspirations. He's determined to win a race against his rival Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), who is out to make a name for himself as the fastest drag racer in town. Charles Martin Smith rounds out the cast as Terry "The Toad" Fields, a younger teen who is forever trying to prove how cool he is to his friends.
"American Graffiti" was essentially the first coming-of-age film for Boomers. It not only reflected what life was like before the cultural upheaval that was the latter part of the decade, but it also used hit 1962 songs to evoke the period, which was not yet popular to do in movies.
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7. Saturday Night Fever
Year released: 1977
Director: John Badham
Actors: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney
When you hit your late teens and early 20s, some moments change your life and set you on a different path in adulthood.
Nineteen-year-old Brooklynite Tony Manero (John Travolta) works at a paint store and lives with his parents. The only time he feels alive is on Saturday nights at the local disco, where his talent for dancing has made him a local icon.
Here he meets Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), a young woman who shares his passion for dancing, and she shows him there is more to life outside of his neighborhood. Through his relationship with her, he begins to question his friendships, values and the direction his life is going.
"Saturday Night Fever" not only ushered in the disco craze of the 1970s, but it also made John Travolta an A-list celeb. Audiences loved it to the degree that a PG version was made for younger viewers, but it's a dark film and problematic by today's standards.
6. The Wanderers
Year released: 1979
Director: Philip Kaufman
Actors: Ken Wahl, Linda Manz, Karen Allen
"The Wanderers" is set in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1960s and follows a gang of greasers as they graduate high school and separate for good. The movie depicts the gang violence, racial tensions and changing cultural landscape of the 1960s.
The Wanderers and the gangs they're up against are based on gangs of the same name who were in the area at that time. Their chief rivals — the Ducky Boys — were portrayed in the movie as Irish-American Catholics and appeared by the hundreds. They never spoke, were motivated by murder and were also based on a real gang, which wasn't as violent they were portrayed in the film. (Believe it or not, Ace Frehley of KISS was once a member!)
Year released: 1985
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Actors: Kevin Costner, Judd Nelson, Sam Robards
This little-known film was a first for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. It follows a group of Texas University frat brothers, known as the Groovers, looking for one last adventure upon graduation in 1971.
All the Groovers are pretty well ready to move on to adulthood, with the exception of Gardner Barnes (a tux-wearing Kevin Costner), who isn't quite ready for what lies ahead. Instead, he intends to dodge the draft and flee the country, but before he does, he convinces a few of his friends to drive with him down to the Mexican border to dig up something he refers to as "Dom."
Barnes soon finds he's not the only Groover to have been drafted. Beneath their hijinks is an awareness of lost love, friendship and possible mortality.
4. The Breakfast Club
Year released: 1985
Director: John Hughes
Actors: Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald
Of all the films John Hughes directed, "The Breakfast Club" is probably his most well-known. Five high school students — "a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal" — from different cliques spend a Saturday in detention together, and they find they have more in common than they thought.
To pass the time, the group shares their struggles and fears and comes to understand each other better, breaking down the walls that exist between them and forming a bond that will stay with them even after they leave.
3. Stand By Me
Year released: 1986
Director: Rob Reiner
Actors: River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman
"Stand By Me" is based on the Stephen King novella "The Body." Set in the summer of 1959 in a small town in Oregon, the story follows four pre-teen best friends — Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O'Connell) — as they set out on an adventure to find the body of a missing boy. Along the journey, the kids share stories and secrets that strengthen their bond.
The movie captures the childhood innocence of the teens and the time in which they grew up, from the longer summer days spent exploring the outdoors to the challenges and conflicts — family dysfunction, abuse, death and the nature of friendship — faced by each of the characters.
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2. Dazed and Confused
Year released: 1993
Director: Richard Linklater
Actors: Ben Affleck, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg
In "Dazed and Confused," Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) is a popular high school senior who is torn between signing a pledge not to use drugs and alcohol and remaining on the football team, or partying with his friends over the summer.
"Dazed and Confused" doesn't have a specific plot — it simply follows the experiences of a group of teens as they celebrate the beginning of summer break in 1976. For people who grew up in the 1970s, the film perfectly encapsulates the carefree time that was their summer experience, and it is a historically accurate document of the time period.
1. Call Me by Your Name
Year released: 2017
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Actors: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer
"Call Me by Your Name" is a coming-of-age love story that takes place in 1983. Elio is a teen living in northern Italy with his family, and over one summer, he and his father's visiting research assistant, Oliver, begin a secret relationship.
The relationship, for various reasons, is doomed. As Elio comes to terms with his sexuality, his views of the world around him forever change.